The Never-Ending Question
Coping with hecklers is one thing, but what’s the best method of coping with the interminable questioner?
By R. J. Stove, CC
It should have been a most enjoyable book launch. The book itself was well worth reading. The author – a clergyman visiting from Oxford University – spoke with intelligence, with a good flow, and with a nicely judged line in self-deprecation. The audience wanted to be there, and it clearly esteemed the author’s long-demonstrated talents. The speech itself was concise: 15 fat-free minutes, with clichés and tautologies mercifully absent.
So what went wrong?
What went wrong was what so often goes wrong at such things: Question Time. Specifically, the hogging of Question Time by one particular narcissist, who droned on and on and on and on, indifferent to the author’s topic, and impervious to the wishes of any other questioners. The rest of the audience, like a ballet troupe, made a perfectly synchronized movement of staring ostentatiously at their watches as the questioner burbled forth. By the time he’d paused for breath, everyone – including, probably, himself – was entirely clueless as to what he’d wanted to ask about.
It’s all very well (and all very necessary) to cope with hecklers. Hecklers, like the poor, will always be with us. They are a recognized hazard of the public speaker’s life, outside such ultra-courteous environments as Toastmasters itself. Much less recognized, but with just as great a potential for taking the wind out of a speaker’s sails, is the interminable questioner. Or, rather, the interminable speechmaker who offers up his unsolicited autobiography and hopes it’ll be accepted as a question.
Certain environments are particularly conducive to assaults from the Never-Ending Questioner. Broadly speaking, a corporate presentation where it costs dollars just to blow your nose is not likely to attract the Never-Ending Questioner. No, he shines at informal gatherings, where the bill of fare is either very inexpensive or altogether free. The book launch finds him in his element (he will seldom, of course, actually buy the book), but he is apt to haunt the modestly priced one-day seminar also. Best of all, as far as he is concerned, is the sort of televised studio audience where the emcee requests audience feedback. There he will demonstrate afresh to the surprised emcee – and, all too probably, to several million horrified TV viewers – the merit of that ancient proverb: “Be careful what you ask for: you just might get it.”
The Never-Ending Questioner does not actually mean to bring the proceedings to a screaming halt. He is simply so in love with the sound of his own voice – and with all the multifarious ideas that are snapping, crackling and popping away inside his head like Rice Krispies – that in his eyes the speaker and the other audience members have effectively ceased to exist. But that doesn’t make it any easier for the speaker to cope. Many a speaker, after having delivered the formal contribution with skill and charm, comes to grief when the Never-Ending Questioner expects (indeed demands) a response to his twittering.
How, then, can you, as a speaker, avoid coming to grief in such circumstances? The following tips might help – these would’ve saved me considerable embarrassment if someone had suggested them to me in my earliest days as a speaker:
• It’s crucial to understand that the Never-Ending Questioner’s behavior is, as Mafiosi would say, “nothing personal.” If it wasn’t you (and your audience) whom he was subjecting to the story of his life, it would be someone else. Think of the number of captive hearers on whom Forrest Gump unleashed his reminiscences.
• Once you’ve perceived that he has no interest whatever in the theme of your talk, and that he is merely babbling for babbling’s sake, it’s best not to try and match his verbiage, syllable for syllable. Sometimes it’ll make sense to say outright: “I’m sorry, I’m not quite sure what your specific concern is, could you perhaps approach me about it afterward?” In nine cases out of 10, the Never-Ending Questioner won’t accept this implied invitation, any more than a heckler would follow up on a similarly phrased invitation. Meanwhile, you have scored points for politeness, and have thereby given extra time to audience members who really do have genuine questions to ask.
• Understand that some of the most famous people of our time have suffered, and suffered severely, from the Never-Ending Questioner. Take Orson Welles, who once said about certain newspaper interviewers: “They ask long questions that are the answers, I nod, and the question is printed without the question mark, as my idea.” Compared to misrepresentation on that scale, the average Never-Ending Questioner is positively harmless.
• Why not sound out the event’s president/director/chair beforehand, about Question Time itself? Agree with that person in advance on the number of permissible questions. You will never have as much time, at any event, as you’d wish. It’s best, therefore, for the meeting chairperson to make it clear to the audience, before Question Time starts, that because of your own other commitments (you might have a plane to catch, for instance), there will need to be a cap on the number of questions that Question Time allows. (Four questions is a good number: high enough to enable various viewpoints to be heard, but low enough to minimize the dangers of running overtime.) If a Never-Ending Questioner knows that other audience members will be under pressure to make their own queries terse, it will be harder for him to get away with bloviating ad infinitum.
R. J. Stove, CC, is an editor, writer and composer living in Melbourne, Australia. A member of the City Centre Toastmasters club, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.