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6How to answer closed, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions

6How to answer closed, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions

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The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections


Making the method powerful

How to answer closed, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions

Look at this classic way to get a howl of derision from the audience.

Interjector “Minister, did you or did you not promise that the schedule

would be announced in March?”

Minister “Well, when you take into consideration the complexity of

the operation, and the fact that we had to go to two select

committees… and then we had to go to every local authority

in the South Island, who had to consult with their rate payers

before we could come up with a clear picture… It was very time

consuming. It’s absolutely vital that we don’t rush this if we’re

going to do a competent –”

Interjector (after hoots “Minister, was that a yes or a no?”

and catcalls)

Sounds deceptive and defensive, doesn’t it? Like an admission of guilt. Most politicians and many senior

executives have been media-trained to avoid a straight yes or no, to avoid having it thrown back at them

at some later date. That advice ignores the obvious, immediate loss of credibility. It’s not a whodunit

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The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful

Answer a yes or no question with a yes, a no, or a short

sharp phrase – then explain or qualify as necessary.

Short sharp phrase? It might be sometimes, or only partly, or almost never, or even it’s not a yes / no answer.

Then qualify with the nuances. The audience needs the short phrase on the front as their platform for

understanding the complexity to follow. All the minister had to do was this.

Interjector “Minister, did you or did you not promise that the schedule

would be announced in March?”

Minister “Yes I did – and I could not deliver. It was much more complex

than we anticipated. We had to… (etc.)

How do you answer a closed, fact-seeking question? The same way. Put the end at the beginning – with

one word or a short phrase – then explain or qualify as necessary.

“When will you push the go button?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m still waiting on reports from Finland, Estonia and

Hungary, and they may be weeks away from completing the analysis.

I’m hoping that… (etc.)”

It’s a mystery that politicians have not discovered that simple, high-credibility way of answering yes, no,

or closed questions. It generates in the audience what every politician and we presenters surely want:

the thought, This person is a straight talker. I can trust her.


How to handle a persistent interjector

When the interjector is persistent, check with the audience.

Amy is a thorn in your side. She’s worked up about forthcoming changes to the lighting in reception,

when you’re trying to tell the staff about refurbishment of the whole floor. This is the fourth time she’s

interrupted on the same point and she didn’t take your last hint that it’s time to move on.

Q “Listen. I want to come back to the reception

lighting. I think it’s important to-”.

You (Put your hand up in the stop position.)

“Just a moment, I need to check this…”

(Look around questioningly.)

“Is it useful for everyone if we stay with lighting

in reception?”

Not using her name. You’re inviting the audience to

decide on the usefulness of a departure from the

main topic, not to make a judgement of Amy.


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The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful

Now, whatever happens you’ll come out looking good. If the audience is fed up with Amy’s constant

interruptions, they’ll shake their heads and ask to move on. In which case you won’t hear from Amy

again, because the psychological weight of an audience is huge. You should then take care of Amy’s

dignity by turning back to her to suggest that you meet to talk about it afterwards. But if the audience

indicates that the lighting problem is important to them, then you have the perfect excuse to give Amy

more time to expand.


Facilitation and how to encourage discussion

So, you want your audience to air their opinions. And you’d like an atmosphere in which:

• individuals feel free to speak

• the outcome is a clear picture of the various points of view – and sometimes a consensus


• extreme emotions are controlled (Four-letter words, personal abuse, throwing cream buns,

and screaming about lawyers are all off the menu.)


The pre-discussion atmosphere

Here’s the question I’m asked most often. How do you encourage people to open their mouths and


If you have any speaking to do beforehand, then there’s a lot you can do before even mentioning the

discussion. The better you engage with your audience beforehand, the more they will want to speak up

when the time is right. For such engagement, see Part II, How to connect with any audience.

But here’s a specific pre-discussion tip that will help.

Avoid rhetorical questions. Ask questions, but show that you expect a response. They must see that you

really are interested in their response, even the smallest nods or shakes of head. And they must see your

reaction to their response, even if it’s just an incline of the head. If you don’t, the audience will think

you’re not really interested in their opinions – which bodes ill for inviting discussion later.

Small audience

You “Have you ever asked yourself what you

come to work for?“

(Look around expectantly)

“What’s your main reason?“

(Look around expectantly)

Eyebrows raised – using your body language to show

that you want an answer. If no one responds, ask again.

Usually this second question will encourage the first

responses. Then show your own reaction to the answers –

a nod, a smile, perhaps a pause to think. And openly

show your surprise if you get an unexpected response.


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The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful

Large audience

In a large group it takes more courage for an individual to speak up. So offer an alternative to speaking.



“Have you ever asked yourself what you

come to work for?“

You say this while looking around, eyebrows raised –

pause, then follow with more words.

“Give me an indication (raise your hand).

Who would put your pay packet as the most

important reason…?“

Looking around expectantly – in silence. Some hands will

go up.

“Thank you… who would count working

as part of a team as the most important


Now people will be getting the pattern. Their

contributions (even if only a hand gesture) are genuinely

being sought.

“Thank you… what about the opportunities

for advancement? Who would count that as

the most important reason…?“

Again, be ready to show your reaction to their responses,

even if it’s only a raised eyebrow. You’re showing that

you’re listening… setting up the discussion atmosphere

in advance.

Starting the discussion

‘Frame and explain’ the audience role

Be especially careful of this one. If the audience is going to be in any doubt about their role – their

real influence on forthcoming decisions – you must let them know. When you start a discussion on a

topic that will affect the audience, they will often have this in mind. Where do we stand? If we give you

our opinions now, how much are they really worth to you? Will you take any notice or are you just going

through the motions? How much say will we actually get?

Tell them up front.


Tell them openly what they can’t influence (out of frame)

and what they can (in frame).

Typically, you might use ideas like this.

The CEO will make the final decision, but first she wants to hear from

us about any problems you foresee. Your thoughts?

If we can reach a consensus now, that will be our decision.

I have decided to approve the proposal in principle. What I need now

is your opinions on how to go about it with the least disruption to your

departments. John and Julia, after we’ve discussed this, could you draw

up a plan and bring it to me. Let’s begin… (looking around expectantly)


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The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful

But some framing words need special attention.

If you use words like consult, involve, collaborate, empower,

tell the audience what you mean by each word,

and spell out how you intend to keep the inherent promise.

For example, consult. Normally that word induces rabid cynicism, but not if you use it like this:

I want to consult you about this. By that I mean I’ll be asking for

your opinions now, I’ll listen to your concerns, and then act on them

if possible. And I’ll bring you feedback on how you influenced the


Do that, and watch the cynicism jump into a state of suspended animation. It will vanish altogether

when you follow through on the promise. However, consultation does not normally mean agreement

to do what they say. If you do want it to mean that, then say so directly as part of ‘frame and explain’.

Formal, comprehensive, meaningful consultation

For a moment, let’s step outside the immediacy of a live audience. Legal requirements for consultation

will vary from nation to nation, but they’re likely to include these common sense components of fairness:


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The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful

• Give sufficient prior notice of a proposed decision

• Disclose all relevant information

• Provide reasonable opportunity for those affected to state their views

• Consider those views genuinely, with an open mind.

Now back to the everyday business meeting.

Declaring your position in advance

If they don’t know your agenda already, tell them openly up front, then ‘frame and explain’ their role.

They must know where they stand and how much their opinion is really worth.

As things stand, I like the look of this design. But I don’t want to go

ahead until I’ve heard from you about any fishhooks I might have missed.

Your thoughts?

Then facilitate their discussion listening with real interest, valuing all contributions equally.

Setting rules of discussion engagement

You won’t always need to, especially if you and your audience know each other and have worked well

together in the past. The rules will be understood. Nor is there any one formula for how to set rules.

But at the outset, you might use sentences like these.

Whatever your opinion I’m keen to for us all to hear it. If you can explain

why, even better.

It’s important we all understand each other’s point of view, even if we

don’t agree with each other.

Let’s suspend judgement for this discussion so we can hear each other


Should we lay down rules to keep emotion out of it?

Usually no. Don’t squelch emotions. Heated exchanges, emotionally loaded comments, are reality –

passionless arguments may have little value. By accepting them you’re saying, We are all bigger than the

emotions being expressed on this issue. But, of course, there’s a limit. If emotions get out of hand your

discussion won’t go far. Look further ahead to Controlling extreme emotion and personal abuse.


Download free eBooks at bookboon.com

The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections


Making the method powerful

Asking open and closed questions

Open questions inherently encourage discussion.

Closed questions inherently discourage discussion – but may

be useful as pivot points, to summarise or change direction.

Mostly ask open questions

They prompt people to develop answers – at least in their own heads. They often begin with how and

why. Typically, when you ask them, you should look around expectantly, eyebrows raised, and prepared

to tolerate silence while the audience thinks.

How should we proceed from this point?

Why do you think head office is asking for this?

Your thoughts?

Your questions?

Your feelings?

I’m keen to hear your opinions

I’ll need to get your opinions on this

Okay, which proposal and why?

Where do you stand on this?

Most closed questions are useless. They’re conversation stoppers unless people are already fired up with

enthusiasm, rivalry or anger.

Do you have any opinions?

Got any thoughts about this?

Who has questions?

Is the deadline feasible or not? Come on, you must have an opinion.

Look, do you want a discussion or not?

But some closed questions are useful, especially when you want to create a marker or turning point in

the discussion.

So you’re thinking of expanding the client list? (pause for reaction) Okay,

so how are we going to do it?

So it’s not going to work… have I understood you? (pause for reaction)

In that case, what do we do instead?


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The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful

We’re in agreement then? Go for Saturday opening? (pause for reaction)

Then we’ll need to figure out how to staff it. Your thoughts?

We seem to have two schools of thought here. Some of us are saying

that it’s a big risk, some are saying yes it’s a risk but we should go ahead

anyway. (Look around expecting more comment.) Juanita, your thoughts?


Accepting contributions

Here’s a point missed by many presenters. When you ask for questions, you can assertively disagree with

questioners who offer opposing arguments. When you ask for a discussion, you can’t.

The purpose of a discussion is for the audience (and often you) to explore the issues from the audience

point of view. You might sometimes throw in relevant facts to help them, but – while the discussion is

on – your job as facilitator temporarily outweighs your own opinions. Which means this:

When you ask for discussion, you cannot take sides.

You encourage and control debate, valuing every

contribution equally, regardless of your own opinions.


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The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful

The non-judgemental thank you

It’s easy enough to say the words ‘thank you’. But tone and body language can turn ‘thank you’ into

almost anything, including please go away and die. So, you have to mean it – but also get into the habit

of inclining your head slightly towards the contributor. That’s more than a nod, more like a bow of the

head. Regardless of their point of view, everyone gets the same gratitude from you, because they are

contributing to an overall understanding.

Have you noticed how often the word ‘slightly’ is turning up to describe useful body language? You can

be extremely persuasive without huge body language – as long as your entire body speaks the same

language as your words and tone.

Encouraging the quiet ones

There are always some who don’t like to speak up in a meeting. If you allow air time to only the willing

talkers, you’re not looking after your audience or your discussion. And the solution is simple: wait until

the current talker has finished, acknowledge that person, then turn to the quiet one and say, “Maria?”

with your eyebrows slightly raised. It’s a low pressure way to help Maria over the shyness barrier.

The first negative comment

It’s a tipping point. The entire audience is interested in how you’ll handle it, and if you handle it well

there’s an almost tangible shift in the atmosphere. Good, I can express my reservations without worrying

about repercussions. Many a disaster has come from experts feeling unable to express reservations with

a project. An extreme example: just before last flight of the space shuttle Columbia, engineers felt unable

to express their reservations. Seven astronauts died in the explosion.

You value every comment equally, because each contributes to a real, overall understanding. And

remember, valuing a comment is not the same as agreeing with it.

Handling grumpy, negative individual

They’ve seen it all. They think it’s all just talk, talk, talk and nothing ever changes. Unless it’s extreme

negativity, don’t treat them in any special way, just value their comments like anyone else’s. But, keep

in mind that if they respond to anything it will be questions from you, to the whole audience, that ask

for practical solutions.

So what are we going to do, today, to prepare?

What real difference is it going to make?

Theory is all very well, but how will we actually apply this?

What do we need to put in place, on the ground, to make this happen?


Download free eBooks at bookboon.com

The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful


If you’re facilitating, you’re almost literally conducting, often with your whole body.

It’s not enough to just say someone’s name to indicate who speaks next; nod towards that person as you

use his or her name. If it’s a high energy discussion – usually the most fun and the most productive –

you might gesture towards them (don’t point, bend your fingers), you might incline your head, you even

tilt your whole body forward by a few millimetres. That last is a tiny movement, barely noticeable, but

it’s the mark of high executive presence. An example:

Two people are speaking at the same time. You indicate one of them

(move hand, expression, head, body) and use his name, “Tim,”

immediately glancing at the other to indicate your intention to come

back to her. When Tim is finished, gesture to the other. “Deidre.”

I keep emphasizing the subtlety of body movements. But the bigger the audience, the bigger those

movements can and should be. See The Engaging Presenter, Part II.

Staying silent, encouraging and controlling cross-fire

Cross-fire can be an excellent way of exploring a topic. So the moment they start responding to each

other, arguing with each other, let it happen. Encourage it, but don’t switch off. The audience must see

that you’re attending closely to everything being said and ready to step in, to throw in useful facts, guide,

interpret, or summarise.

Or to keep control. Cross-fire can easily get out of hand, especially when egos get involved. Look back

at Setting ground rules and next to Controlling extreme emotion and personal abuse.

Discussions usually don’t run well without a facilitator. They often go off on a tangent, and they can

become so distorted by a vocal few that the true audience picture doesn’t emerge. When you do step

in, use neutral language like this.

Ganesh, I’m not clear on why you think we’ll get a backlash from the


I think Katy’s point is that we can’t avoid a re-start. A questioning glance

to confirm with Katy, look around, invite more comment with your eyes.

We’re off on a side-track here. Let’s come back to the main issue – how

are we going to minimize the damage?


Download free eBooks at bookboon.com

The engaging presenter Part III:

How to handle questions and interjections

Making the method powerful

Controlling extreme emotion and personal abuse

Out-of-control anger and personal abuse of others in the room are destructive and certainly don’t help

the discussion. Don’t say anything in advance, just deal with it firmly when it happens. You are there to

look after the audience. You might say:

Wait. We want your opinion, but please moderate your language.

We know you feel strongly about this, but the discussion will work better

if you can touch the brakes a little.

No more of that please. Personal abuse won’t help any of us get through



Bringing discussion to an end

Usually sum up before closing.

So it’s mostly a no? (pause, look around for confirmation) Okay, thanks

everyone. I’ll take that to the full council meeting.


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