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On the face of it, it sounds absurd: surely the answer belongs to the person who asked the question. But in a group that’s almost never true. Subconsciously, the entire audience adopts the question as if every person had asked it.

Why answering to the whole audience is important

Try this mind experiment: imagine being in a very large audience, near the front, and asking a question. If the presenter comes to the edge of the stage and locks on to you for a couple of minutes, talking only to you with five hundred people watching, how do you feel?

For most people that’s a horrible experience.

What if it isn't a large audience?

So how small does the audience have to be to make it all right to talk only to the questioner?

One.

Well, okay, in a very small audience you'll get away with it... but only because most people won't consciously know what's wrong. And it really is wrong. If you 'lock on' to one person, you're losing the audience, and you're implying that the question is so unimportant that the answer belongs only to that person. That's disrespect.

Share the reply with everyone

So here's the core skill - how to manage a question or interjection:

  1. Listen (with warm interest) to the question or interjection. If you need a moment to think, nod to the questioner and look away to think, breaking eye contact with the audience. There is no loss in credibility in two or three seconds of silent thinking... it's just not normal to always have instant answers. (However if you're embarrassed - then you do lose credibility!)

  2. Direct the first word or phrase of your reply to the questioner (with extra interest, as if you're energised by the question)

  3. Direct the rest of the answer to the entire group as if everyone asked the question.

  4. Return to the questioner for a nod of thanks.

You may need to try it out with a trusted group first before you're convinced. If you do, get them to ask easy 'how' or 'why' questions first. Then, once you've got the feeling, you'll be able to extend the skill to more difficult questions.

Enjoy the boost to your credibility and authority. You’ll have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Michael

About Michael Brown

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Michael is a senior trainer with Skillset, based in Christchurch.

He is a leading authority on training in presentation and news media skills in New Zealand. He has special expertise in how to present emotionally charged topics to challenging audiences. Michael has trained thousands of New Zealanders and worked with people who speak on behalf of some of the country's largest organisations.

Michael is a prolific author and his books on speaking and working with the media are in their fourth editions.

Speaking Easy: how to speak to your audiences with confidence and authority

Media Easy: how to handle the news media with confidence and authority

One of Michael's books is about his family's adventures sailing in the Pacific.

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