Presentations: When to Take Questions

Questions from the audience

Questions from the audience are an integral part of most presentations and speakers should look forward to them. Questions mean that the audience is interested and wants to know more. And even if someone wants to challenge you on a point, at least it means that they were paying attention!

Many inexperienced speakers take questions at the end of their presentations. This is understandable, but it is also a mistake.

Your conclusion is one of the most important parts of your presentation. It is your final opportunity to make an impact on your audience. You should guard it fiercely and not relinquish control over it.

When you end your time on the stage in a question and answer (Q&A) format, the final impression that you leave is almost always diminished from what it might otherwise have been. This is especially so if you get questions that are off topic or meandering. The audience members start fidgeting or checking their email or even walking out.

So what to do? Not taking questions is always a possibility but rarely a good one. Depriving the audience of the opportunity to raise issues with you will frustrate some and could hurt your credibility. Fortunately, there is a simple and effective solution: Take questions just before your concluding remarks.

Suppose you have 45 minutes to give a presentation and you want to allow 10 minutes for questions. That leaves you with 35 minutes of speaking time. Here’s what you can do:

  • Structure your presentation so that you cover your points in 30 minutes.
  • At the 30-minute mark, say something like, “Before I leave you with my final thoughts, are there any questions?”
  • Respond to any questions for the next 10 minutes.
  • At the 40-minute mark, bring the Q&A session to a close.
  • Offer to speak afterwards with those who didn’t get a chance to ask their questions.
  • Give a powerful, memorable conclusion to your presentation.

Shifting the timing of the Q&A session by only five minutes allows you to maintain control over your conclusion. And that’s what you want.

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  1. Great article, John!
    Another approach, that I have seen, is to allow ask questions during the presentation. But sometimes it is really distracting for the speaker, because of the frequent interruptions.
    On another hand, as a listener you don’t want to wait until the end to ask a question. A listener could forget his question (because he will hear a lot of new info), and for a speaker it is hard to scroll over hundreds of slides to find some slide at the beginning (and to remember what he said about this slide).
    Can you take questions after the end of each logical part of your presentation? So your listeners can ask questions before you move on to the next part, and you still keep a control of the interruptions.
    Does this method work?

    1. Andrii, thank you for the comment and thoughtful questions. The length of the presentation, the number of topics covered, the size of the audience, etc. are all factors to be considered.
      For long presentations, taking a few questions after each main section can be a good idea, for the reasons you state and also because it gives the audience a bit of rest. When I give a full day workshop, I use this approach. In fact, I tell the participants at the outset to stop me anywhere along the way if they have a question. When you have several hours, you have this kind of flexibility.
      But for shorter presentations — say, anything under an hour — I prefer using the method described in the post. Of course, if someone does throw out a question, I try to give a concise answer and then remind people that there will be time for questions towards the end of the presentation.

  2. John, you raise a very important issue. Indeed it is a smart idea to pitch the final conclusion after the Q&A, and maybe add some constructive ideas from Q&A to the final conclusion (on the fly). It gives a sign to the audience that the presenter is very dynamic.

    1. Thank you, Shashi. You make an astute observation about working something that was discussed during the Q&A into the conclusion. If a speaker can do it on the fly, and if it fits, so much the better.

  3. Taking questions immediately before the conclusion. Genius! I’m amazed that I’ve never heard of this before, or indeed that I’ve never thought of it before. Thanks, John.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Peter. Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones. I can’t count the number of good ideas (speaking and non-speaking) that I’ve come across over the years and thought, It’s so obvious; why didn’t I think of that?!?

    1. Thanks very much for the comment. One way to deal with the “crickets chirping” scenario is to have a couple of questions in your pocket. Then, if no one is willing to ask the first question, you simply say, after a long enough pause, “One common question I often get is X.” Then answer X. This technique will very often kickstart the questions.

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