It’s always encouraging when members of the audience ask you unprompted questions. This demonstrates their interest in your topic and it allows you to clarify and extend your explanations. It also shows they trust you and the safe space you have created. As any parent or educator knows, though, children at particular ages seem to be addicted to asking questions. In fact, these inexhaustible question-generating machines can derail your presentation without careful management.
Manage the question tap
I normally encourage presenters to manage questions which the audience may ask spontaneously during the presentation, rather than asking to save them until the end. They will usually have forgotten them by this stage. However, since question-asking is so instinctive and contagious for children, learn how to turn the question tap off and on before you attempt this strategy. Otherwise you’ll drown under a tsunami of enquiries — both relevant and irrelevant — and you will run out of time to achieve your original objectives for the presentation. Accepting spontaneous requests means you must edit your interactive script onstage dynamically, by dropping or editing other parts to save time.
One of my first science shows was for a group of about 60 primary school pupils. I was introducing them to simple ideas about pushes and pulls using a series of toys. I can’t remember what scientific idea I was talking about at the time, but at one point near the end of the presentation, I took a question from a 5-year-old boy who had been sitting patiently with his hand up. I’ll never forget his question though and how calmly he asked it.
“Why do people die?”
I was flummoxed. I don’t know if it was the sudden change in subject matter, the sensitivities around talking to young children about death, or simply the profound nature of the question that threw me, but I became increasingly flustered as my brain chose this moment to freeze. I couldn’t know what I’d said or what experience he’d been through to trigger this question, but I was terrified that no matter what I did in response, I would put my foot in it.
After what seemed like 3 years, a kind teacher came to my aid. She moved across to the boy and quietly started talking to him, while I desperately tried to remember where I was in the show to get things back on track. It wasn’t exactly a graceful recovery on my part.
Nowadays, I hope I would be able to sensitively acknowledge the importance of his question and encourage him to perhaps talk to one of his teachers afterwards, but move the focus immediately back to the subject at hand. But that’s one of the thrilling aspects of our job — when you allow questions, you never know what will come out of their mouths.
Frame their expectations about asking questions
With teenage and adult audiences, it can help to let them know you’ll accept questions as you go along, where you can. But I’ve learnt the painful way not to open a primary school presentation by encouraging them to ask you “lots of questions”. At this age, they need no encouragement. Just like avoiding mentioning “toilets” at the start, it’s safest not to put the thought of asking questions in their heads. Let them arise organically during the presentation.
Establish the flow rate of questions
Next you need to train the audience in the frequency of questions you expect. You do this by taking enquiries from those who have raised their hand, at the rate you want, as you slowly open the tap. This will depend on:
- the age of the audience — the younger they are, the more I control the question tap, especially at the start. Younger children are also more likely to stray into asking irrelevant questions. Older groups will begin to self-regulate to some extent, once you set the rhythm.
- the phase of the presentation — some routines and phases will permit more interaction and others will require you to limit the number of contributions you take, e.g. to build suspense before a reveal; or during a controlled finale.
Adjust the flow rate
Just because someone has their hand up, don’t feel you have to call upon them. There are several ways to inhibit questions when you need to:
- by increasing the pace and reducing the length of your pauses, you can reduce the likelihood of interruptions.
- making a quick, friendly aside to a spectator with a raised hand, such as, “Sorry… we’re just running short on time … but please ask me afterwards.”
- after giving this verbal explanation once, you can then decline future requests non-verbally, without interrupting your delivery, e.g. using strong eye contact to engage the person, then lowering your hand with a slight shake of the head and an apologetic smile.
Managing requests in this way throughout the presentation takes patience, energy and focus. Like all complex skills though, with practice, it will become less mentally taxing.
Listen to the entire question
Train yourself to listen attentively to what they are actually asking rather than assuming you know what it will be from the start. Sometimes you have to interpret the subtext behind their words to uncover what they are really asking. Unfortunately, the more experience you gain as an educator, the greater the risk is that your familiarity with the most common queries you encounter will trick you into making these kinds of lazy assumptions.
Resist grading the question
I suspect every presenter has fallen into the trap of occasionally commenting, “That’s a great question!” Often, we’re not even aware of doing it. Despite how interesting we find it, how insightful it is or how helpfully it raises an issue we forgot to discuss, publicly ranking questions is almost always counterproductive. Firstly, this praise may sound patronising to some of the audience. And, secondly, by implication, it suggests that you think all the other enquiries you’ve been asked weren’t “great”. Questions mean a lot to the people in the audience who pluck up the courage to ask them.
Another trap to be aware of is non-verbally grading the contribution by becoming more or less animated as you answer it. Try to appear equally interested in everything you are asked through your voice and body language.
Managing a separate Q&A session
With some presentation situations, you may be required to ask the audience to defer their questions until the end. Other times, in addition to taking them during the show, there can also be a separate question-and-answer session after the main presentation.
With teenage or adult audiences, there is often a reluctance to be the first person to ask a question in these circumstances. Once one brave person starts, though, a stream often follows. To help overcome this initial hesitation you can:
- use wording which shows you welcome questions and do not see them as a challenge or complaint, e.g. a friendly, “Was there anything we discussed that you’d like me to clarify?”;
- start off by asking them a provocative question you know is likely to stimulate a healthy debate;
- give them 60 seconds to share their main take-aways and any concerns they had with their neighbour, before asking for questions from the audience.
Some tips for managing Q&A sessions with younger children:
- agree a clear duration for this session with the organisers in advance and stick to this timing — otherwise the Q&A can continue for a long time and some spectators will become frustrated or bored;
- encourage the audience to ask relevant questions and to listen to everyone to reduce off-topic or repeated enquiries;
- give concise answers to allow as many children as possible to interact with you;
- clearly signpost the end of the session by saying, “Time for two final questions…” and then, “For the last question today…”.