No 30-minute answers

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I was delivering a presentation to a conference of industry professionals at Blue Mountain Resort on the topic of Present With Ease, when the conversation turned to one of my favourite concepts: the question-and-answer process.

Those who know me will tell you that one of my favourite Q&A strategies is to encourage my clients to P-A-S (pause, answer the question and stop talking). "But," countered one of the Blue Mountain participants, "what if the question requires 30 minutes of explanation?"

I thought about that comment then, and I've thought about it since. I would give the same answer now that I gave then. I don't believe there is a question anywhere that requires 30 minutes of answer. (Actually, I have trouble thinking of a question that requires two minutes of answer.) And a recent conversation with my son Andrew highlighted this for me.

Andrew enrolled as a first-year business student in September, 2006, at a university in southern Ontario. He took calculus as a required course and, at the start of the year, the professor informed the class that every second Friday morning would be devoted to Q&A.

Prior to attending his first Q&A class, my son prepared a list of questions he was hoping to ask. That was at the start of the school year. When Andrew came home for the Thanksgiving holiday, we talked about his experience.

"How did the Q&A class in calculus go?" I asked him at one point.

"Not well, dad," he replied, looking a bit uncomfortable. "I only attended one class."

I must admit I had fleeting thoughts of tuition dollars flying out the window. But before pursuing those thoughts, I asked: "Why only one?"

"Because it's the most boring hour you could imagine," he told me. "During the first class, the professor answered four questions."

So much for 30-minute answers. With 15-minute answers, my son realized that he would be sleeping, whether in class or out, so he decided to exercise his rights as an adult and make it official. Every second Friday he slept in.

What makes this story interesting is that this is not some half interested conference crowd, a semi-motivated group of workshop attendees or a prospect that someone needs to impress (and not bore). This is an undergraduate student who has clearly defined career goals, in which calculus is an important step along the path.

Now, I'm sure that my son, who was of legal drinking age in Ontario before his first calculus class, consumed more amber fluid every second Thursday evening than he would like to admit or his father would like to think, but he has consistently proven over the years that he is committed to the goals he sets.

So the next time you're answering questions, and you think your answer has been too long, rest assured that it has. When any of us are answering questions about topics we're passionate about or on which we'd like to educate others, we're the last ones in the room to figure out that we've talked too much.

But before you ever get to that point, be aware of the other person (or people, if you're in a group setting) as soon as you begin answering. Engage them. Don't be afraid to answer their questions and stop talking. This encourages them to ask more questions -- which ultimately increases participation, understanding and buy-in.

Even my math will tell me that 30 minutes of Q&A , in which 50, 60 or more questions are answered is better than 30 minutes of "on and on" every time.
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