No Such Thing as a Stupid Question

The Dilbert comic strip which lampoons all aspects of the business world, turned its attention to Q&A with a panel that had Dogbert, one of the strip’s recurring characters, sitting under a red banner reading “Communication Skills Training.” Dogbert is addressing a class and says, “Today you will learn how to listen to idiots without snorting.”

Dogbert was referring to the all-too-common spontaneous reaction that many people in business display when they are asked what they consider to be idiotic or stupid questions. But this disdainful behavior can boomerang because the person who asked the question does not consider it stupid. And that person could very well be the decision maker who can either approve or disapprove of a presenter’s pitch.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wielding his usual satiric blade, was cutting both ways: mocking seemingly stupid questions and showing that the snorting reaction is equally stupid.

In the business world, there is no such thing as a stupid question. A question might be uninformed, tangential, or seemingly irrelevant, but—whether the presenter perceives it to be stupid or not—every audience member has every right to ask any kind of question. To appropriate the famous line from the 1989 film Field of Dreams, if they ask it, you must deal with it—but you must deal with it without offending.

When fielding questions from your audience, the correct way to react to a question that you might perceive to be off-topic is to paraphrase the key issue. The primary purpose of a paraphrase is to neutralize a challenging question, but it can also neutralize disdainful responses from the presenter.

For instance, if at the end of a presentation about the bells and whistles of your new product, you were to be challenged about why the product is priced so high, the neutralizing paraphrase would be, “Our price is based on…”

If at the end of that same new product presentation, you were asked about the typeface of your logo, instead of judging that to be a stupid or irrelevant question and yielding to the common temptation to say, “What on Earth does that have to do with the product?” say instead, “The reason we chose that typeface is…”

This simple step will not only inhibit any snorts—or snickers, smirks, frowns, nose-wrinkling, or eye-rolling—it will lead you to a respectful answer to your valued audience member.

This blog is an excerpt from my book Winning Strategies for Power Presentations published by Pearson. Also check out my newly released Presentation Trilogy—Presenting to Win, The Power Presenter, and In the Line of Fireavailable on Amazon and other retailers.