As a frequenter of book readings and author workshops, I’ve sometimes noticed a moment when the author loses part of their audience, the part that cares about how the author is reacting to questions. Perhaps the author becomes dismissive, defensive, passive-aggressive, or skirts a question entirely. Whatever the case, there’s an invisible shift in the room, that of readers mentally downgrading the author from their auto-buy columns. Below is a list of common question types with example answers that can leave an aftermath of negativity as well as alternatives to keep audience members in that book-buying zone.
SCENARIO 1: Someone raises their hand before the author is ready to answer questions.
NEGATIVE: “If you/everyone could please hold your questions until the Q&A.”
This is polite, I guess, except the question-asker usually ends up looking like they would prefer if their chair swallowed them whole, like back in grade school when Teacher disciplined them in front of the whole class.
BETTER: “Yours will be the first question I answer when we get to the Q&A, and in case I forget, raise your hand extra high for me.” This signals to the group that all questions can wait, and the question-asker feels acknowledged and even prioritized, not disciplined.
SCENARIO 2: “But in my story, I do this,” an audience member comments.
NEGATIVE: “I recommend doing it this way,” the author responds.
Again, the response isn’t impolite, but it translates to, you’re wrong. The question-asker may not even absorb the author’s advice, because they’re too busy processing how embarrassed they are.
BETTER: “That’s a super interesting approach/perspective. However, have you considered…” or, “I see the logic in that. I wonder if melding the two ideas might work for you.” Now the question-asker feels like their ideas have been validated.
SCENARIO 3: “I wasn’t a big fan of this thing you did in your book,” an audience member comments.
NEGATIVE: “Well, too bad,” or, “Well, that’s the way I wrote it,” responds the author, laughing to try to ease the tension.
Audience members are allowed to be negative, but mirroring that negativity won’t sell books. There are times when the, “Too bad,” or, “We’ll have to agree to disagree,” response may be more appropriate, but in a lot of cases, it is possible to find a more positive response.
BETTER: In most such situations, it may save time to acknowledge the opinion and move on (see scenario 8 for exceptions.) “I value your opinion,” or, “Thank you. It’s important for me to have feedback. It’s one of the main ways I grow as an author.” You could explain your reasoning for doing something a certain way if you feel the situation calls for it, but beware asking, “Does that make sense?” afterward, because if they say no, then you’re stuck in a circular conversation for a chunk of your Q&A.
SCENARIO 4: Someone asks something off topic or that the author doesn’t know the answer to.
NEGATIVE: The author either A) shifts the question to subject matter they’d rather discuss, or B) says, “I don’t know,” and moves on, or C) worse case scenario, they fudge their knowledge, just so they can get an answer out.
In the case of A, they come off like a politician. For B, they come off as dismissive and a little lazy. For C, they’ve lost my trust.
BETTER: Depending on the situation, “That’s such a great question, but a little outside my area of expertise unfortunately,” or, “That’s out of my area of expertise, but my best guess is,” or, “I don’t know, but I can find out,” or, “Let me think about that and get back to you,” or, “I’m not sure, but what I’ll do is pass around a sheet (preferably with a signup option for your e-newsletter), and I’ll send everyone answers within the next week.”
SCENARIO 5: An audience member either states something as fact or says they read/heard different information from what the author is stating as fact.
NEGATIVE: “I don’t know why you think that, but it’s incorrect.”
BETTER: “Do you remember where you read or heard that? It’s contrary to most of what I’ve read. If I give you my email, could you send me the article?”
SCENARIO 6: Someone asks a question that will take too long to answer.
“That’s a great question, though, I think we’ll cut into the next speaker’s time for the complete answer, but what I can tell you right now is…” or, “That’s a great question. Because we’re short on time, may I suggest checking out this website to see what they have to say about it?”
SCENARIO 7: Someone asks a question that doesn’t make sense.
NEGATIVE: “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.”
The author is shifting all the blame for not understanding the question on the question-asker. It may be the question-asker’s fault, but the author doesn’t have to make the question-asker feel like it is.
BETTER: Try to suss out what the question-asker is trying to ask by asking them a follow-up question or questions. “Can you give me an example of that?” or, “Do you mean…”
SCENARIO 8: An audience member layers something into their question that lets the author know the question-asker is, for instance, racist.
In this situation, I respond well to an author invalidating an audience member’s question, and no, I don’t believe that the answer should always be, “I respect your opinion, but…” or, “I respect your right to express your opinion,” because these imply the author thinks it’s okay to A) be racist and/or B) express that racism, which I don’t. I would be equally fine with a more aggressive, “Your opinion is offensive,” as I would be with an attempt at diffusing, “I acknowledge your opinion, but I come from a different place than you,” though, option B, to diffuse, is probably the best route for continued book sales.
This post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. So many great blogs to keep hopping through. Click here to join the hop and to see what other writing tips you can glean from this month’s edition.
Are you the type who asks questions at events? Are there any scenarios that I haven’t addressed? Chat with me in the comments.