No question during your Q&A?

Have you ever wondered why people who are neither dumb nor blind become mute when the time comes for them to ask questions at the end of your presentation? The reasons are audience or presenter-related.

elephant in the room
Elephant in the room Ann Large Valentine Flickr.

AUDIENCE-RELATED

The Elephant in the Room. In some countries (Japan comes to mind), the attendees may consider impolite to talk before a more senior person in the room does ( a dean, an official,…). That person may just be there for moral support, politeness, or prestige, but not interest. Often unfamiliar with your topic, that person does not want to appear ignorant in front of the rest of the audience by asking an unprepared question. However, fear not, the questions will come as soon as that person fires the first question or leaves the room. Stick around outside the presentation room for a real Q&A.

The Shy Audience. Some people are as petrified to ask questions as the presenter is to present. They want to know more, but to leave their permafrost state, only the presenter’s warming smile, genuine openness and generous eye contact may take them out of that state. The audience needs body language to be encouraged to ask questions. Move towards the audience. And wait. Let the unbearable pressure of silence work its tongue loosening magic. But let that not be your tongue! It is the audience’s turn to speak.

The Proud or Discrete Audience. Some questions would reveal things about the questioner that the questioner does not wish the rest of the audience to know. They may reveal their lack of knowledge, ethics, of social skills, a speech impediment, a strong accent, or unsightly corporal features.  A one-to-one question after the talk is less intimidating. So make yourself available right after your talk.

The Inordinate Time to the First Question. The audience expects someone somewhere will ask a question. It usually comes from center front, rarely from the sides. If the first question does not come within a time collectively felt as being reasonable (the smaller the audience, the smaller that time), the audience draws negative vibes from the continued silence which it turns into a sanction and a blame. By then, even the ones who were going to ask a question given a little more time, give up and leave since other people have already started to leave the room. Talk to the chair of your session before your talk. He or she may be encouraged to ask the first question.

PRESENTER-RELATED

The Unquestionable.  Things you said may be so obvious and clear that nothing you said raised question. Your presentation may not have been bad, but it probably was not useful. The facts you presented were unquestionable. because they were too well-known. They lacked novel significance or implication statements. They were presented from a classic, unoriginal point of view.

The Unknowledgeable. Some things you said during your presentation are blatantly wrong, and the audience is knowledgeable enough to know it. They could attack you, but in the process, would embarrass you. So they simply stay quiet, and leave. They were there to learn for an expert. You were not that person.

The Arrogant. Alas, some presenters have a knack to make the audience feel out of place. They mention their elitist friends during the talk, say several times that only a minority of people are smart enough to understand the problem. And by the time the talk ends, you know you are part of the majority. They cocooned themselves away from any potential question. Withdrawn, stern face turned away from the audience as they gather their makeshift notes, their body language clearly communicate they have no inclination to answer any question.

The Vanishing. WAIT! Do not do your disappearing act, immediately closing any opportunity for questions with a lame statement like “I must have been very clear since you have no question”, and rushing off stage.

The Jargonaute. The jargonaute’s talk is for people from planet science. Unfathomable, undecipherable, impenetrable, it is not of our world. As minutes pass by, the audience discovers that an abyss of ignorance separates it from the jargonaute. People want pebbles of knowledge, not kryptonite. No question the jargonaute is an expert. No question!

Author: Jean-Luc Lebrun

This century: Writer on Scientific writing skills and scientific presentation skills, MC for scientific events, Podcaster, Radio Consultant, Trainer for Research Institutes in Engineering and Life Sciences, Singapore, and in European doctoral schools, as well as in South East Asia Universities.
Last Century: Apple Computer, Advanced Technology Group, Technology Information manager. Then Director of the Apple-ISS Research Centre – a joint venture between Apple Computer and the National University of Singapore. Producer of TV program on IT for Singapore Channel 5.