How to field questions

Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • Last Updated May 18, 2021

A few nights ago, I talked about Online Optimization at the Leadership Institute's fundraising workshop.

I was the closer. And, unsurprisingly, the crowd was a bit rambunctious after 10+ hours of presentations and workshops. They expressed that energy by asking questions without being called on. I'd be in the middle of a sentence, and a person would interrupt with their question, topical or not.

That's a huge challenge for presenters. How do you own the room when you actually don't?

Here's what I did:
  1. Let the people interrupt
  2. Walk towards them as they talked
  3. Answered the question quickly
Let interruptions happen: It took a ton of energy. Letting random questions interrupt the flow and maintaining some control is rough. But instead of fighting the questioners and creating terrible moments, I rolled with it. I probably walked 1,000 yards during the presentation, and the presenter space was only 20x20 feet. But the audience stayed with me.
Walk towards them: Walking towards the person asking the questions sent a subtle signal that I, the presenter, was still in charge. If I'd stayed behind the podium, the questions would have been longer and these participants probably would've answered each other, instead of hearing from me. A few times I got very close to the front row, but by looking into the questioner's eyes and nodding my head, I showed them I was listening but that I still owned the room.
Answer quickly: A quick answer, followed by a return to what I was talking about also respected the rest of the audience. Most of the questions were less about the topic and more about specific applications of it. I assumed that the audience had different applications, and thus the questions weren't of general interest. If the questions had been echoing around the room and driving the discussion forward, I would've spent more time on them and thrown out some slides.
How do you handle rambunctious crowds?

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