3 min read

Don't Take Questions From the Stage

Here are a few things you can do to improve the odds of rocking your next conference talk:

  1. Limit scope. Explaining three points clearly and memorably is far better than cramming a comprehensive overview into 30 minutes.
  2. Craft a narrative. Human brains think in – and remember – stories. Stories have a beginning, middle, and end.
  3. Finish strong. The impression the audience leaves with is largely shaped by your last lines.
  4. Rehearse. Rehearse. Rehearse. You’ll sing a better song when you’re not struggling to remember the lyrics.

So let’s say you get up on stage, confidently tell a compelling story, and then close with a mic-drop worthy finish that’s met with a roar of applause. But then you look at the clock and say, “I’ve got a few minutes left. Does anyone have any questions?”

About fifty percent of the time, no one does. So you’re standing in awkward silence as both you and audience wonder how to interpret that. Was your talk not good? Was no one paying attention? I mean, it felt like they liked it, but now you’re not so sure. You wait for as many painful seconds as you can muster, then meekly exit to a tepid second round of applause.

The other half of the time, when someone does ask a question, four things start to rub against your diligent prep work:

  1. The scope of your talk increases. And not necessarily to accommodate an important or even relevant point, but rather to address a question from someone who’s spent approximately thirty seconds thinking about the topic. Sometimes it’s a good question. Sometimes it’s only interesting to exactly one person. You never know.
  2. Your answer lacks a narrative. It’s a factoid hanging out in the open. Even a good answer is soon forgotten.
  3. You cripple your strong finish. Those carefully chosen, carefully delivered lines are no longer the last impression you leave your audience.
  4. You’re the opposite of rehearsed – you’re improvising.

It’s unlikely that these issues will ruin a great talk, but they certainly take some of the punch out of it. On rare occasion, a Q&A session is marginally net-positive. Typically, it’s marginally and forgettably net-negative.

But you also open yourself up to a few strongly net-negative scenarios:

  1. Q&A sessions typically drag on and run over on time – it’s just hard to come up with a succinct answer to good question on the spot. Now the organizer either has to interrupt you, or compromise the schedule. It’s a bad spot to be put in when things were going so well up until two minutes ago. (Pro-tip: very few organizers or audiences ever mind a talk going five minutes short).
  2. Someone envious of your prominent position on stage proposes a long-winded, mostly rhetorical question to demonstrate that he knows more about this topic than you do. (Gender specific pronoun used intentionally there because every time I’ve seen this happen it’s a dude “asking” the “question.”)
  3. You may be tempted to lighten up your answers with improvised jokes, which is risky in an environment where an errant comment tweeted out of context can taint a reputation and, in extreme cases, ruin a career.

I’m not saying that questions from the audience aren’t important or valuable. But the stage, right after your performance, isn’t the best place or time to address them. Instead, after you finish strong and graciously accept the audience’s applause, simply say, “I’ll be hanging out in the hallway after this and would love to chat if you have any questions.”

The folks who want to learn more will find you – including folks who never would have asked their question in front of a room full of people. You can spend time giving them an answer that they’ll understand, or you can grab their info to follow up later. If you’re asked a question and don’t know the answer, there’s less pressure to make it seem like you do. If you accidentally give the wrong answer, stumble over your words, or slip up and say something that’s offensive to someone, there’s a lot more margin for recovery. Plus face-to-face conversations jump-start the relationship building process – the best part of speaking at conferences.

Unconvinced? Do great bands take requests for the last song of the night? Have you ever seen Q&A at the end of a TED talk? Did Steve Jobs ever do “One more thing… and maybe a few questions if we have time”?

As the speaker, the audience has entrusted you with the responsibility to inform and entertain them from the moment you walk on stage to the moment you walk off. When you take questions during that time, you abdicate control to someone who has no stake in the success of that mission. After putting in so much work to control so many aspects of your performance, why leave the most criticial last few minutes to chance?