Ask the Right Questions

The Q&A session following a presentation can be enlightening, boring, or uncomfortably confrontational, depending on how it is handled. While the onus is usually on the presenter to manage the situation, the person asking the questions shares the responsibility for assuring that the Q&A exchange is positive and productive.

Pertinent questions play an important role in clarifying the material presented, eliciting additional information, and challenging incorrect information or assumptions. The trick is to do this without directly attacking the speaker or putting the speaker on the spot.

Consider these strategies that can help you question a speaker without sounding too aggressive or abrupt:

  • Connect directly with what the speaker said, e.g., "You suggested moving the analytical group to the Oregon site. Could you explain how that will impact the overall process?"
  • Soften the impact of a challenging question. Notice how the phrasing, particularly the use of "I" statements, is assertive without being aggressive.

    I have a question about...
    Regarding the issue of..., what ...?
    To go back to your earlier point, how...?
    I'd like to hear more about...
    Specifically, what...?
    I'd be interested to know how...
    I see that...
    Was there a particular reason for...?
  • Keep a positive tone. Consider the difference in tone between these two questions:

    "Why haven't you mentioned anything about the impact on long term output?"

    "Could you expand on the impact of your proposal on long term output?"

    By putting a more positive spin on the same challenge, you are likely to get a frank - and less defensive - response
  • Begin your question with an introductory clause that adds context or conveys thoughtful consideration:

    "If we look down the road, how would you expect these changes to play out over the next 18-24 months?"

    "Since the revenue stream from that product is decreasing, what can we do to...?"
  • Here are some other possible introductory clauses. Notice how each question asks for specific information.

    Given/ Considering the current situation, when...?
    If we decide to move ahead with this, who...?
    Since we're short on resources, how much...?

Even if your initial reaction to the speaker is, "No way!" or "That's completely off base!", discussion will be more productive if you reframe those challenges into questions that attack the issue and not the speaker's credibility.

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