Today marks the start of Pubcon 2012, and I’ll be functioning in the roles of speaker, panelist, panel moderator, and audience member. Thanks to Eric Bergman’s 5 Steps to Conquer “Death by PowerPoint,” I’ll be observing a metric I’ve never paid attention to before: each speaker’s Q-ratio.

Calculating The Q-Ratio

Bergman defines the Q-ratio as the number of questions from the audience divided by the length of the presentation in minutes. Remarkably, he suggests that it should be 1.0 or greater. So, for a 30 minute presentation, there should be 30 questions. Sounds crazy, right?

In fact, Bergman does some questionable math showing that a 60 minute presentation could generate 300 questions if the rate of questions and answers is ten per minute. (Even if you eliminate the replies entirely, getting an audience to be concise enough to spend 6 seconds asking each question seems impossible. Conference organizers tend to get testy when a speaker tells an audience member, “Can you get to the %\$#@! point, already?”) Still, even 30 questions in a half hour talk is a lot by most standards.

Conversation vs. Lecturing

Just about every guide to public speaking tells speakers to engage in a conversation with the audience. Usually, this means making eye contact with audience members, using phrasing that suggests spoken dialog and not written text, and perhaps asking the audience a question or two. This is all good advice, but isn’t remotely close to what Bergman suggests. First, Bergman suggests that a true conversation would give half the time to the audience, so talking nonstop for 50 minutes and then allowing 10 minutes for Q&A is hardly a discussion.

To accommodate the number of questions needed for a high Q-ratio, a speaker needs to rethink the format of the presentation and let the audience guide its direction to some degree. He must encourage listeners to interrupt when a question pops into their mind. An immediate answer can clarify an element that may have confused not only the questioner but others as well.

Hold That Thought?

Bergman says one practice that speakers should avoid is telling a questioner, “Hold that question, I’m getting there in a minute.” Telling people to keep a question in their head will make it difficult for them to concentrate on the speaker’s content until that topic is reached.

Brevity and Push-ups

At this point you are thinking, “If I take 30 questions, my half-hour preso will take two hours!” Bergman has an answer for that. Be brief! Very brief! As a speaker training exercise, he has told students that for every word over 10 in a reply, they will have to do ten push-ups. Because few aspiring speakers want to drop to the floor and start doing push-ups, answers exceed that number very rarely. The way the math works out, Bergman suggests trying to answer every question in ten seconds or less, and says

The reasons answers normally take much longer include not understanding the question, so the speaker expounds on the alternative possibilities. Another is anticipating the follow-on question, and answering that, too. And, of course, there’s the classic: answering in far more detail than is necessary simply because one can. Bergman says he’s never seen a question that can’t be answered in ten seconds. Pausing and thinking before replying is essential, he says – it shows respect to the questioner, and gives the speaker a chance to understand the question and come up with a concise reply.

Ideally, a short question encourages another question, and then another. (And, the audience members might jump on the brevity train, too!) By letting the audience direct the exploration, they are learning more and what they are learning is more relevant. The speaker can guess what the audience needs to know, but that’s not nearly as good as finding out via questions.

Avoiding Death by PowerPoint

There’s a lot more to Bergman’s book than this one thought. His main theme throughout the book isn’t “make better slides” but rather “use as few slides as you can get away with, preferably none.” That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Bergman is no fan of slide software like PowerPoint, Keynote, and Presi.

Read my review of Bergman’s book at Forbes: Conquering Death by PowerPoint/a>.

Is a High Q-Ratio Practical?

In the hundreds of speeches I’ve seen, ranging from lengthy keynotes to shorter panelist talks, I can say with some certainty that I’ve never seen one that met Bergman’s recommended ratio. And, of course, virtually none of history’s most memorable speeches permitted interruptions or stopped for questions. What’s your take – is this a practical approach? Have you seen it done? Please share your thoughts in a comment.

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