Janet L. Kayfetz

The art and craft of writing and speaking

Month: June, 2012

Responding to Questions

Responding to questions requires good listening, quick thinking, focus, timing, and breathing. Whether a question is short and to the point or long-winded and fuzzy, you can think of your response as having three basic steps.

1. Comprehend. Identify the point and breathe.

2. Respond. Give a direct answer – the topic.

3. Expand. Elaborate on your response – the comment.

1. Comprehend. It is obviously important for you to understand a question before you can give a helpful answer. Concentrate hard when the question is being asked and do not interrupt even if you think you know where the questioner is going. Pinpoint the question in your mind, and then breathe to prepare yourself for your response. If you are unclear about the question, ask the questioner to clarify for you before you answer.

2. Topic. The first part of your answer should be a relatively short and direct answer to the question, and usually provides either some information and/or your opinion. Keep it to the point.

3. Comment. The second part of your answer is an expansion of your initial response. This is where you offer clarification, an example, a counterexample, more opinion. An answer without a bit of expansion can seem abrupt and even impolite.

This “respond with a direct answer and then follow with an expansion” structure is called Topic-Comment, and is the appropriate and expected way to communicate in a formal situation when responding to a question. All it means is that when giving an answer to a question, give the punchline first and the commentary second instead of the other way around. When you use a Topic-Comment structure, your listeners will perceive you to be on topic, direct, and focused. If you adopt a Comment-Topic style where you offer details and examples before giving a direct response, you may be perceived to be rambling and unfocused.

The art of the matter is to be able to manage all questions no matter when they occur — both during and following a talk — and to offer responses that are to the point, complete, but not too long and repetitive. If you respond to a question that comes up during your talk, it is vital to be able to segue gracefully back into your discussion. If you respond to a question during the question and answer period, it is important to know how to finish an answer and move on to the next audience member who has a question.


How important are the visuals in a presentation? Vitally important. And the importance goes both ways: Excellent visuals can bring life to your presentation story, while poor visuals can take away from your story. Which choice do you make?

The guiding principles when incorporating a slide into your presentation are that it must advance your discussion and clarify the concepts you are explaining; it must ideally add a non-verbal representation of an important concept; it must be crystal clear and easy to navigate from the point of view of the audience member.

The language on each slide should be grammatically perfect. If you are a nonnative speaker of English and you are not sure about the grammar or punctuation, ask someone for help.

It is a very important exercise when selecting and building slides to differentiate for yourself what you (the speaker) need to know from what the audience needs to know.

You may feel, for example, that you have too many slides in your introductory section. Ask yourself: Who needs these slides, me (the presenter) or the audience members? Am I using these visuals to help myself remember the story — which is okay to a point — Or do I need to be more familiar with my material so that I can eliminate slides that are unnecessary?

This thinking can be applied to the entire story: In general, which parts of the story can I tell without using bunches of slides?

The audience should not have to work hard to understand our story and our visuals – – it is our job as presenters to work the hardest.

Here are some examples of excellent visuals – –

From a talk entitled “Sketch Recognition” by Computer Science PhD student Jeffrey Browne, UC Santa Barbara.

From a talk entitled “Catch Me If You Can: Visibility-Based Pursuit and Capture in Polygonal Environments with Obstacles” by Kyle Klein, PhD student in Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara.

From a recent talk by Jonathan Valamehr, PhD student in Computer Science at UC Santa Barbara.

Maritza’s Talk at GHC2011

Dr. Maritza Johnson completed her PhD in Computer Science at Columbia University in May 2012. While at Columbia, she studied both writing and presentation skills with me. Maritza thought I would be interested in how she used the idea of backward buildup to organize and practice a talk she delivered at the 2011 Grace Hopper Conference in Portland, so she sent me her hand-written notes — all 10 pages of them — documenting the process. She has graciously given me the go-ahead to share her notes, so I thought it would be interesting — and inspiring — for all of you to see how Maritza started with an idea and finished with a beautiful presentation at GHC2011.

We highlight the three major steps in Maritza’s talk preparation: Step 1) The story takes shape. Step 2) Backward buildup. Step 3) Practice and debriefing.


Usable Security and Privacy Policy Management by Maritza Johnson

1) The story takes shape.

“Iteration 1: Start with my time limit and a rough cut of the material to cover.”

“Iteration 2: Expand a bit on the rough cut of material to cover.”

2) Backward buildup.

“This is how I implemented your advice on planning the talk backwards. I broke down my time into chunks that I used for choosing content and practicing sections.
 fyi – a pom = 25 minutes. I set a timer and try not to multitask while it’s running.”


“For each chunk in the diagram above, I selected content based on what questions I should answer in that chunk and the amount of time available.” (Content development notes  for Part 1 are shown below; the process was repeated for Parts 2, 3, 4 — notes not included.)  

“After I expanded on each section, I made a rough draft of the slide deck.”

3) Practice and debriefing.

“Then I practiced each chunk based on the diagram on page 1. I think I practiced mouthing the words at first to get a feel for what I wanted to say and how much time I could take.”

“I practiced each section aloud with a timer several times and took notes on which slides worked well with the flow, where I fumbled and wasn’t sure what to say, and which slides needed changes, animations, or should be deleted.”

Following the actual presentation, Maritza did her own talk debrief. Here are some of her notes:

  Thank you Maritza for sharing these invaluable insights with all of us, and congratulations on your new PhD accomplishment!


So I have put together all of the details for an hour-long presentation. I have thought a lot about my audience and I have made decisions about how much I will be able to say — and say well — in the 60 minutes that I have been allotted. What now? My presentation is ready. I’m done, right? Well – – – – now it’s time to practice.

There are two fundamental ways to practice:  1) silently and 2) aloud. The first way involves a review of your presentation in your own head. We all do this a lot before we present because it helps us feel comfortable with our story and because we think that we will be less likely to forget what we want to say if we go over and over things in our minds. It is easy to practice this way because we can give ourselves a silent presentation anywhere and anytime.

The second way of practicing asks more of us and leads to different results. I will be very direct here — I believe that you must practice your talk aloud in order to deliver an authentic and well-paced presentation. And you must practice in a way that simulates the context in which you will speak. (It would be ideal if we could all practice giving our talks to a real audience in a real meeting room, but most of us are not that lucky. No worries — make a commitment to practicing aloud in whatever context is available to you, and know that you are preparing yourself for a great result.)

Find a space where you can set up your laptop and project your visuals. I have practiced this way in my living room where the visuals are projected on the wall; and I have practiced this way in a hotel room. Even if you are not able to project the visuals during your rehearsal, you can set up your laptop and use it in the same way that you will use it during your talk. Being comfortable with the physical things you will do during your presentation is very important — almost as important as being familiar with your story.

Practice introducing yourself and getting into the talk; practice moving around; practice your gestures; practice with the remote if you will use one; figure out when to advance to a new visual and practice the verbal transitions; see how it feels to look around to all parts of the room; play with volume and speed. Also be sure that you time yourself during your rehearsals so that you know where you are and where you want to be during each section of your presentation.

In addition to practicing aloud in a “real” context, you can practice aloud to an invisible listener while riding your bicycle, while cooking, while in the shower. You will be able to hear the speed, the pauses, and the flow in a way that you cannot hear these details when the story is a silent one. Any time you speak aloud, even to yourself, you are incorporating the physical and sensory aspects of presenting, and you are preparing yourself for the real experience of transforming thoughts and ideas into a spoken story.

%d bloggers like this: