July 8, 2010

3 tips for when an audience member dominates Q&A

How many times have you sat in the audience during the Q&A portion of a presentation (either live or on the Web or phone), and felt frustrated by one audience member dominating the questions? Perhaps this person has several questions that go on and on, or perhaps she doesn't have a question at all and tells long stories.

Either way, the speaker is not taking charge of the situation, leaving the rest of the audience, also with questions, tapping their feet, looking at the clock, and feeling ignored.

Unlike a true heckler, the person dominating Q&A is not trying to put you down or make you look bad. Like a heckler, however, this person does want a lot of personal attention which, as the presenter, you cannot give at the expense of other audience members.

How do you handle this needy person?

1. The multiple question-asker

When someone says, "I have a couple of questions," one way to deal with it is to take the first question and ask her if she can save the other two until others have asked theirs. You will immediately nip in the bud the first kind of dominating questioner. If you run out of time for everyone's questions, let them know you'll stay after for a few minutes if people want to talk, or ask them to contact you by e-mail with additional questions.

The person might not tell you she has more than one question, but you soon discover that there are multiple questions coming, and it's too late to stop it. In this case, try to give a general answer that covers some of her concerns, and again, suggest talking more afterward so you can more specifically address her particular issues. Then move on.

2. The conversationalist

Sometimes a person asks a question, you answer it, and then he just continues to converse with you, adding details and sometimes sneaking in a "follow-up" question or two. This is a difficult situation, because you feel rude if you cut him off mid-sentence, but you know you have to stop the flow.

When it appears that this person will continue talking or is going to sneak in another question, don't let it go on and on. Jump in when he takes a breath for air with a comment like, "That's a really common concern. Thanks for bringing that up. Does someone else have a question they'd like to ask?" Just do it. Be assertive. Don't be rude, but cut the cord.

3. The storyteller

This is the person who stands up and starts talking about her own experience, but never actually formulates a question. These stories can go on indefinitely. Again, you need to be polite but firm. When the person takes a breath or when you can sense any kind of break coming, jump right in with, "Wow, that must have been scary. I'm glad you survived. Do you have a question?"

If the person cannot put together a question, you need to take control and say, "I'm going to move on to the next person with a question. If you'd like to talk after the presentation, I'll be around for a little while."

Managing Q&A is a skill developed through practice. It's not just about knowing the answers; it's also about crowd control. Be assertive but caring. Let the audience member know that you hear him and that you value what he has to say. But never let someone dominate the room; you will see your audience's eyes glaze over and you will their interest and maybe not regain it.

Share your strategies for handling the Q&A dominator below!

And for more on dealing with hecklers, go here:

Heckle Schmeckle

Hecklers, the original backchannel

Dealing with hecklers download

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6 comments. Please add yours! :

Michael Cortes said...

You may also want to try this...

When a dominator (aka Joe) asks a question, turn to the audience and ask a related question. A question that breaks Joe's momentum and puts other people in the conversation.

"Has anyone else felt like this? How did you handle it?",

"Joe asks a great question. Do you ever find yourself in this situation?",

or "Good question Joe. (turn to audience) Do you have a question similar to Joe's?"

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks, Michael -- classic tool I use with hecklers! But always good with dominators, too!

Zach Robbins said...

Thanks for posting some helpful methods for dealing with a rough Q&A. To me, the most interesting Q&A to study is a press conference, especially a political or crime briefing. Since it's Q&A to the extreme, I think it's interesting to study the way that the press secretary handles selecting who asks questions and how many they can ask and what to do when someone gets out of line. Of course, you have the opportunity to be a little more brash and cut throat, but still something we can get some take aways from.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Great example! I think a lot of speakers wish they could be as tough with their audiences as the press secretary can be, with rules and structure.

Olivia Mitchell said...

Hey Lisa
I know your post is focused on people who are dominating the Q&A session and as a result other people are missing out or it becomes boring. But.. I'd like to add, that one person being particularly active in Q&A is not necessarily dominating or boring.

Sometimes they're simply the bravest or most extrovert person present and are asking the questions that other people have in their minds but haven't dared ask.

Or they have some expertise and you and that person can have an invigorating debate on an issue which other audience members will find fascinating. A dialogue is often more interesting than a monologue.

So my caveat is don't make the assumption that someone who is asking multiple questions should automatically be shut down.


Lisa Braithwaite said...

Hi Olivia! Good point. I'm definitely referring to the person whose questions or comments are so personal or off-track that the rest of the audience isn't benefiting from them.

In fact, if a person is having an interesting conversation with the speaker and their questions are good and useful, I wouldn't consider them "dominating." There's a negative connotation to that word that is specific to someone who is troublesome rather than helpful.

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