A debater’s guide to handling a live Q&A

My favourite thing about debating in front of live audiences is by far the Q&A. Up to that point, you have no idea how your opening arguments will be received, so striking the right chord involves mostly guesswork. Once the audience start giving you a piece of their minds though, you know where they stand and what it will take to persuade them. It is in these critical exchanges that the debate is ultimately won or lost and the ability to handle difficult questions really can determine which it will be.

Indeed, in each of the 27 debates I have held in the last 18 months*, an average of 15% of the audience have changed their minds with this being enough to reverse the result of the pre-debate poll on 6 occasions.

Most people will have to face a Q&A at some point in their lives; after all, how many of them can expect to rise up the ranks of their profession without eventually having to give a presentation and take questions from the audience? If the same applies to you, then ask yourself this: what could you do with that extra 15% of support? What product could you sell, what decision could you influence, what aspiration could you make a reality?

I have spent the last 8 years of my life watching, chairing, and speaking in public debates twice a month — that’s about 175 in total— and learning how to defend a proposition under scrutiny from a live audience of strangers. Here is what you need to know about handling Q&A and winning over that 15%.

A barrister speaking in a debate earlier this year on whether to ban ‘sex for rent’ adverts

There are only 2 reasons you will be asked a question by the audience

  1. Because they didn’t understand what you said.
  2. Because they didn’t agree with what you said.

I would exclude negotiations or interviews with journalists and potential employers from this because that is more like debating with an opposite number (a good subject for a future blog post to be sure).

Instead, imagine you have just presented a bold idea to a room full of strangers. Anyone who feels that your speech has covered everything they wanted to know and confirmed everything they already believed to be true will have no reason to ask you anything.

This makes things much simpler because whatever the question, only one of two responses will be required: either a clarification of your position or a defence of it. But, how do you tell which response is most appropriate?

You can normally distinguish a request for clarification from a challenge to your position based on the tone and wording of the question. Open questions (ones that don’t require a simple yes or no answer) asked in a civil and curious tone like: ‘how does that work’, ‘why is that necessary’, or ‘what would happen if’ are typical examples of a request for clarification. Closed or leading questions that often sound more like comments in disguise such as: ‘isn’t the same true of ’, ‘don’t you agree that’, or my personal favourite: ‘what about…’ are typical examples of challenges. They normally sound more hostile too.

A change manager delivering a summary speech that proved to be decisive in the post-debate focus group.

Dealing with a request for clarification

If you can give a straight answer, then for the love of God, give a straight answer. If you need to unpack the answer and explain it in a little more detail, then tell the audience this is what you intend to do and break up the response into a short version (the straight answer), which comes first, and the long version (the explanation), which comes second. Bottom line: when someone is telling you what information you need to give them to win their support, don’t make it any harder for them to get it than it is already.

What if you don’t know? Then say you don’t know, especially in a debate where you have an opponent critiquing everything you say. If you try and wing it and you are caught out, your credibility will be obliterated. After all, you can always offer to look into it and get back to them later.

However, your top priority is just to make sure you understand which part of your argument they’re querying. Doing this well means recognising that any case for change (which is what any attempt to persuade someone to think or act differently amounts to) has three parts: the problem you wish to solve, the solution you favour, and the outcomes you predict. So, if you’re being asked why a change is necessary, for example, then you’re being asked about the problem. This means your answer should focus on why doing nothing is not an option and the harms that would result from this. Resist the temptation to re-sell the benefits of your idea instead and just answer the question.

The Director of a public engagement charity talking to the audience about drug testing in athletics.

Dealing with a challenge

There is a wonderful quote from my favourite TV show, the West Wing, where a press officer is advising her candidate on how to prepare for a Q&A with the press: “Now remember, you control the conversation. You don’t like what they ask, don’t accept the premise of the question.” This is good advice and while it may sound like she’s advising him to dodge the question, it is a perfectly reasonable response if that question is based on a flawed assumption.

Take this example: you are making a passionate defence of the institution of marriage because you think the evidence shows that married couples lead happier lives, when an audience member asks: ‘but isn’t it true that you are currently divorced after an unhappy marriage?’ This is an example of what is known as an Ad Hominem fallacy, which is an attempt to undermine a claim by attacking the person who made it. This unpleasant question is based on the flawed assumption (aka premise) that your own marital status is a better test of the strength of your argument than all the evidence you’ve provided.

A straight answer won’t work here because both a yes and a no will validate that assumption, which a cynical person might say was a deliberate attempt by the audience member to embarrass you. So, how do you answer this question without looking rattled or alienating the rest of the audience?

Here’s how:

“Thank you for your question (always thank them even if they are the most obnoxious person in the world as you are not just responding to them, but to every other person in the room who thinks they may have a point) and before I answer it, perhaps I can put to you another — just to make sure I understand your point: if I were still happily married right now, would that make me right?”

To the rest of the audience, you look like you are politely requesting a clarification to what most of them will agree is a delicate question that would make them feel uncomfortable if they were in your shoes. What you are actually doing is calling out the questioner’s flawed assumption.

This is because there are now only two answers they can give. If they answer yes, they concede that your original argument is perfectly sound, and if they answer no, they concede that their question was largely irrelevant. If they try and avoid the question (the most likely response), you can instead devote your answer to explaining why they avoided it without having to suffer the indignity of defending your marital status to a person who was never going to support you anyway. Who is this meant to convince? All of those people who thought the questioner might have had a point, but were not yet sure.

So, if you are challenged, don’t fall into the trap of giving an answer you can’t defend, but don’t ignore it either. Simply question the premise it’s built on. Not rebut. Question. Allow the other person to expose their own flaws. If you go on the offensive, you will look hostile and they will escape scrutiny.

Listen to how debaters handle questions

If you want to hear for yourself how debaters navigate their Q&A sessions, then listen to this recording of a recent debate on whether the world governing body of athletics should erase all world records set before 2005 — you can expect to hear a good few requests for clarification in that one. Below is a short summary of the arguments made for and against the motion in that debate, along with the results of both the pre-debate poll and the final vote.

If you want to see how debaters handle questions in the flesh and even throw a few at them yourself, you can follow us on facebook, twitter, and meetup to receive updates of our upcoming debates and other events taking place across the capital that we think may interest you as well.

*The reason I selected only the last 27 debates out of a total of 175 for my analysis was simply because those are the only ones for which I have enough data of a sufficient standard to include — I wasn’t cherry-picking, I promise. And if you don’t know what cherry-picking is, I have an article in the works on cognitive bias and logical fallacies — so follow me if you want to read it.

Like what you read? Give Tony Koutsoumbos a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.