You’re in middle of a presentation when someone asks a question about a topic you planned to cover later in your talk. You’re faced with a choice: You can answer the question—which may throw off the sequence of your presentation—or you can tell the questioner you plan on covering that material later.
What’s the right thing to do in those moments? In a recent article for Inc.com, author Jeff Haden wrote this:
“If you happen to stumble on an audience eager to learn and interact, grab that chance and enjoy it. If someone has a question you will address in a later slide just skip to it right away. If someone is brave enough to raise their hand and ask you a question, compliment them and invite the rest of the audience to do the same. Never delay anything.”
Although Mr. Haden’s advice is right some of the time, I disagree with his absolutist stance. Context matters. Below, you’ll find six options to consider when faced with this circumstance.
1. Set the rules before you begin
There are five times you can take questions from your audience; tell your audience which one you’ve chosen during your opening remarks. Generally, I take questions throughout my presentations—particularly in smaller sessions in which audience participation is beneficial—but there are exceptions, such as when I speak to larger crowds.
2. Make them wait
Like Mr. Haden, my instinct is generally to try to answer the question in the moment. But there are times that’s not the case. As an example, if someone interrupts a powerful story with an irrelevant question, it could undermine the entire impact of the anecdote. It’s okay to defer those questions to later in your presentation.
3. Answer the question now
When it’s not disruptive to do so, answer the audience member’s question in the moment. As Mr. Haden suggested, doing so encourages the type of audience behavior you usually want—engagement and participation. Taking questions in the moment is also of value to you as a speaker, since it offers you immediate feedback about what your audience may or may not understand or be interested in.
4. Short answer now, long answer later
I like this hybrid approach, because it both honors the questioner and allows you to cover the material in the most persuasive sequence possible. In this case, you might answer a question by saying, “The short answer is yes, although there are a few situations in which that’s not the case. I’ll go into detail on those three situations shortly.” When you do cover that material later, check back in with the questioner to make sure you’ve sufficiently addressed their concerns. This type of hybrid response also prevents you from having to utter the rather graceless, “Well, I was going to cover that later, but I guess I’ll just answer that now.”
5. Determine the question’s relevance
Before deciding to make the questioner wait for an answer, quickly assess how relevant their question is. If it’s a question many other people in the audience are likely to have, you might consider answering it before moving on. If it’s of more limited appeal, it’s less of a risk to come back to the topic later.
6. Consider the type of presentation—and your audience
If your presentation is designed to inform or educate, I’d almost always answer the question in the moment. But that might not be the case if you’re making a persuasive argument and it would be counterproductive to reveal your conclusion before you’ve given the audience the context they need to understand your final recommendation. Answer questions that help clarify your content, but resist the urge to jump ahead to your conclusion before you’ve sufficiently laid the groundwork.
Of course, that might be harder to pull off if the questioner is your company’s CEO or a prospective customer. In those cases, it’s probably best to answer their questions on their time frame, not yours.