Speakers: What’s Your Q-Ratio?


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.

  1. jim penny says

    Very interesting. Possibly the Q ratio of 1 is an ideal, and the point is to strive to involve the audience, and yourself (the speaker), in the overall topic as much as possible within your allotted time. (I have not read his book, but am now interested; yet another book to add to my pile, but that’s o.k.). Does Bergman talk about ways to observe how your audience is fairing during the presentation? Possibly tips on “signals” from the audience which the speaker can use to shape the flow, tone and texture of the presentation?



    1. Roger Dooley says

      Jim, there’s not a lot of body language or similar content in the book but the whole thing is about how to prepare your preso to begin the engagement process and then how to bring them into it as you progress.


  2. Rick says

    The Q-Ratio would be better if it were done not by number of questions but number of minutes allowed for audience interaction. I work at a lobbying and PR firm and a lot of what I do is manage the events. We usually aim for the audience participation to be half of the scheduled speaking time and that seems to work great for us: 40 minute talks and 20 minutes Q/A.

  3. Roger Dooley says

    Rick, although Bergman does define the Q-ratio in terms of question count, it’s based on split of time (50/50, vs. your 66/34) and how long he thinks questions should take to ask and answer. What he wants to avoid is one question that produces a 15-minute answer. We’ve all seen it happen!


  4. Ernest Barbaric says

    A very interesting take… I’m sure most of us could come up with quite a few arguments against it such as how much necessary content would be delivered before diving into questions, or how would you pull it off as part of a keynote to an audience of 1000+… or what happens if you don’t have the audience asking questions right off the bat? … or how do you adjust your presentation on the fly?

    However, if the point is to involve and engage the audience, then activities and feedback could be weaved into the presentation (Gamestorming is a great book for these ideas). Using Bergman’s approach would work extremely well in a workshop or non-time-limited environment – but I would find it really challenging to fit into a keynote format. That said… it may be a worthy challenge.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good points, Ernest, and I wondered the same thing myself. In a packed ballroom, just getting a microphone to a questioner is going to take up a lot of time and slow things down.

      I also wonder about questions that defy a short answer, like, “Give me a few detailed examples from real-world companies that prove your point.”

      I’ve definitely seen workshop presenters adopt a very conversational approach, but typically they have a smaller group and longer time.


  5. Eric Bergman says

    Roger … Thanks for all of this. Great conversation!

    In a large auditorium, it can work to use volunteers with microphones who circulate. Audience members can ask questions themselves, or the volunteer can ask on their behalf.

    However, with groups of 50 or fewer, there is absolutely no reason to not encourage questions throughout.

    We’re at a weird place in the information age when it comes to presentations. Unfortunately, the information has become more important than the understanding it’s supposed to generate.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for stopping by, Eric! I’m working on incorporating some of your thinking into my upcoming presos! But, you’ll have to pry PowerPoint of my cold, dead laptop – I still think it can add a lot to a presentation if properly used!


    2. Ernest Barbaric says

      I feel like there should be a qualifier about what kind of presentation is this supposed to be and who your audience is. This rings to me like an evolved Q&A session, a single person panel or something like “Ask the experts” format.

      I speak professionally and have been to quite a few conferences as an attendee. As a member of the audience, my goal is to glean an insight, to improve my situation or thinking. Sure we can ask questions, but I would argue that in a typical keynote situation, the presenter would have a hard time performing a transfer of knowledge.

      What I’ve done before in keynotes is stop at certain sections, let the material sink in for a few seconds and then ask for questions before continuing on. But even with that, you have to stay on schedule – so it’s a lot to balance and think about while on stage for that short amount of time. And again – it might be a worthy effort to create a more conversational experience.

      Roger – I personally use Keynote and have applied a lot of Garr Reynold’s thinking, combined with cues from the Bill Gove system – usually to a great reception and feedback.

  6. Eric Bergman says

    Yes, Roger, but remember …

    The tail should never wag the dog!

  7. Eric Bergman says

    Ernest, it can be difficult to achieve a Q-Ratio of 1 in a keynote address. But there will be 40 million presentations delivered worldwide today. In at least 39.5 million of those, a Q-Ratio of 1 should be a minimum standard.

    And we’ll know we’ve truly arrived when conference organizers begin subscribing to The Audience Manifesto (www.fivestepstoconquer.com/manifesto.html).

    Audiences deserve better from the presentations they attend.

    1. Ernest Barbaric says

      I believe the onus should be on the speaker (and organizers) to structure the speech in such a way that it addresses audience needs and answers probable questions – which can be done in a conversational and engaging tone.

      Some of my personal favorites I’ve seen recently are Mitch Joel, Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell. They convey great value and actionable ideas in their talks and I’m just not sure how that would work in a content/question format. Again, these are just my personal opinions – so take it with a spoonful of salt 🙂

      But, I’d be very interested to see what this actually looks like… Is there a video somewhere of a speaker using this method for us to glean some insights from?

      Thank you for engaging in this conversation.

      – Ernest.

  8. Eric Bergman says

    Hey Ernest, thanks for your continued comments.

    In my worldview, the Q&A is the place at which the audience can best match their needs to what the speaker can provide, especially if they’re encouraged to ask questions that could potentially have benefit to others in the group (who probably share many similarities).

    My wife and I were at the police dog training facility for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) this summer. Beautiful summer day. Amazing demonstrations.

    Between demonstrations, the officer in charge allowed people in the grandstand to ask questions into the microphone so all could hear. Then she answered them, or got another officer to answer if she didn’t know the answer.

    The answers were all succinct. I’ll bet at least 100 questions were asked (people could ask two, three or more in a row). The Q-Ratio was easily above 1.

    Some of the questions I might have asked myself. Many others brought up points I hadn’t even considered.

    It was amazing how much we all learned from this interactive process. And it made everyone (even those of us who didn’t ask) feel very involved in the demonstration.

    And I doubt that the officers would have done a single pushup!

  9. Ben Drake says

    As a practical approach this doesn’t hold water. Maybe as an idealistic goal to keep in mind when working on a speech. This to me smacks of quantity rather than quality. I’d rather get a solid answer to my question than get 5 words and feel like I’m pulling teeth from the speaker with follow-ups.

    Another point, when I attend conferences or keynotes I’m looking for that tid-bit of insight from the speaker. I’m all for engaging with the audience, but truth be told, I didn’t attend to hear the audience ask questions (reference our town hall debate… not tuning in to hear the audience talk. Frustrating.). I want Godin’s take not John Doe’s.

    Haven’t read the book, but what’s the reasoning behind the Q ratio? What shows that this is a better way to present? Is there data that indicates higher Q scores correlated with higher enjoyment or fulfillment? I agree with some of the comments above that certain situations may allow for this better than others.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Ben, the basic idea in the book is to turn a lecture into a conversation. This should keep the audience more engaged and also may keep the speaker focused on the needs of the particular audience. I agree that it’s not always the optimal approach. I’m at a conference now and heard quite a few speakers. Panelists had a limited amount of time – 15 minutes maximum. Some had a lot of great information to convey, and I didn’t want the audience interrupting with questions.


      1. Ben Drake says

        My only objection is as the audience grows in size the emphasis on a Q-score might be less effective. Great stuff though. I do love when people actually apply researched psychological principles instead of old wive’s tales to business practices.

  10. Eric Bergman says

    Ben: It’s not pulling teeth. It’s allowing the receiver (the person asking the question) to find the components of the sender’s knowledge that are most important to creating understanding, retention and application.

    There is significant research around the concept of informed consent to support the Q-Ratio. Informed consent is where one person or group (i.e. health care providers) with more technical information is providing another person or group (i.e. the patient and/or the patient’s family) with information from which the receiver must make the final decision.

    Logically, better communication would equal better decisions.

    Two things are pretty clear. Less is more; the less information the technical expert provides, the more the non-technical people actually understand. And more questions per unit of time equals better understanding and fewer problems (everything from misunderstandings to lawsuits) down the road.

    And, as Professor John Sweller says in the foreword of my book: “The recommendation to avoid PowerPoint as a visual version of a talk is based on the redundancy effect, as is the recommendation that answers to questions should be brief and to the point. The recommendation to allow questions during a talk rather than at the end is based on the temporal split-attention effect. The suggestion that talks should include sufficient pauses to allow an audience to think flows from cognitive load theory and its emphasis on a limited working memory, based on empirical findings associated with massed versus spaced practice.”

    (As an aside, my editors wanted to remove that paragraph because it’s very technical. I left it in because Professor Sweller was sending a message to his cognitive colleagues on areas where more research could be conducted.)

    1. Ben Drake says

      Eric, I appreciate the reply and the background info. I have a few more psych. principles to research and learn about. I appreciate the use of psychology, resistance is human nature but I look forward to learning and applying some of these techniques. Is there any relationship with audience size (or other factors) in which maximizing your Q score is not the utmost concern?

      1. Eric Bergman says

        Ben: There is no reason to not answer questions throughout with audiences of less than 50. I am comfortable answering questions with audiences of 200 without any audio support (i.e. microphones).

        With larger groups, you might want to set a couple of ground rules. First, when someone asks, they should speak loudly enough so that everyone can hear. If someone doesn’t hear the question, they should raise their arm and wave their hand back and forth, in which case the question will be repeated. Otherwise, it will simply be answered.

        Second, please ask questions. If someone wants to contribute in other ways (i.e. make statements or stand on a soapbox), you do reserve the right to bring things back on track. (However, keep in mind that research into adult education indicates that the greater the equality between teacher and students, the better the learning experience for everyone!)

        The Q-Ratio is not set in stone, but it should be a guide and a goal. If the objective is to communicate effectively (and it pretty much should be, or why are you there?), more questions equals more engagement and more understanding.

  11. Judy Snow says

    I’ve used Eric’s recommendations to develop a presentation I give on social media for job seekers. I’ve delivered it twice and am about to deliver it again. These sessions are much more conversational than any I’ve given in the past – I’d say I’m generating 30 questions in an hour. Evaluations by participants so far have been the highest of any presenter in the program. I suspect that’s not because I’m the best presenter or that my material is the easiest or the most fun. I suspect it’s because Eric’s approach actually works.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great info, Judy. It sounds like you’ve mastered the art of keeping your replies brief!


  12. Marcia Ross says

    Just toppled into this thread today. Am all on board with the concept. I wanted to answer Ernest’s question of:

    “… how do you adjust your presentation on the fly?”

    You de-linearize your PowerPoint! Your agenda is a set of internal hyperlinks, which leads to mini-sub-presentations. You can choose to present as little or as much as the situation demands.

    So, if someone asks a question part-way through that moves you back to a certain place in your presentation, and the audience is focused on that area, you can a) easily get back there, and b) decide to stay there and leave out parts that they appear to be less interested in. Because your presentation is NOT set up linearly, but more like a website, where you (with the audience) can navigate to where you want to go.

    (Clear as mud? Feel free to contact me offline if you have questions 😉


    1. Roger Dooley says

      “Pick Your Path Preso,” eh, Marcia. I like it. I wonder if I can trademark that!


    2. Ernest Barbaric says

      Ive experimented with interactive presentations, both in workshops and courses I teach (internal linking on PPT and keynote) and again I come back to the idea that if it’s a keynote – then there should be a transfer of knowledge, in a linear and logic progression. If it’s a “Ask the expert” or Q&A themed session – then that’s a different story.

      Imagine telling a story that starts in the middle, then jumps to the end, then somewhere at the beginning, then again to the end…

      I’m also familiar with the cognitive load theory mentioned above as well as the work by John Medina which references working memory. But to me, it’s the speaker’s job to pace his talk in such a way that he/she allows time for things to sink in. This can be a transitional period between points – or maybe a space for questions.

      Another note I’ll add to this approach is that you wouldn’t necessarily be addressing the introverts in the crowd, those who don’t feel comfortable asking questions. And what about the questioners who have their own agenda to push, or take a few minutes to ask a multi-tier question? You’d almost have to teach the audience how to ask effective questions before starting.

      Again, these are just my thoughts. Take them with a grain of salt 🙂

      – Ernest.

  13. Eric Bergman says

    Ernest: I recently delivered a presentation to faculty members at a major university. During a break, one of the Ph.D.’s in the room came up and told me something that he said I could steal: “Information doesn’t become knowledge until it socialized.”

    As I say in the book, the irony of the 21st century is that we’re moving more and more toward socialization (conversations), which is what social media is all about (i.e. this blog).

    I would never start a text conversation with my kids by sending: “I’m going to send 10 screens of information. When I’m done, you can now ask questions.”

    They’d think the old man really has lost it!

    If that’s not acceptable, why is “I’m going to go through my presentation and save some time at the end for questions”?

    I agree that there are some forums (and I believe a relatively small percentage) in which it’s virtually impossible to take questions throughout. But there are a great many more in which it should be an expectation on the part of audiences.

    And that’s one behaviour the book seeks to change.

  14. George Torok says

    I agree with making presentations more conversational. Using questions is one simple way – and there are three ways to use questions in a presentation:
    1. Speaker answers questions for the audience
    2. Speaker asks questions of the audience
    3. Speaker poses rhetorical questions, then answers the question

    1. Roger Dooley says

      All three are questions, George, but only the first really stimulates conversation. The second might, if the speaker can draw an audience member into talking, vs., the typical, “How many of you…?” question.


      1. George Torok says

        Roger, I agree that speakers should avoid the “fake polling” question. I suggest real questions that stimulate thought – which I think is more critical than just conversation. If I’m sitting in the audience my thoughts can be stimulated by the person next to me asking a question. The point is that it doesn’t matter who asks the questions. Most questions mentally engage. I think that’s the real goal of a presentation.

        While the speaker is preparing for the presentation, she can also prepare good questions to use.

        It works for me – even delivering a keynote to over 800.

        1. Eric Bergman says

          George, I agree that questions are important on both sides, but I believe it does matter who asks questions.

          Think of two audiences. In one, the speaker asks 50 questions. In the other, the audience asks 50 questions. All other factors being equal, which audience is better engaged?

          1. George Torok says

            That’s an interesting question. I don’t know the answer because I have not conducted nor read of such a study.

            I’m guessing that we are simply trading opinions without proof on either side.

            An interesting discussion.

  15. Marcia Ross says

    C’mon Eric! Recently I came upon the adage “Hard cases make bad law.” In other words, arguing or judging from extremes (“In one, the speaker asks 50 questions. In the other, the audience asks 50 questions. All other factors being equal, which audience is better engaged?”) has its limits.

    One of the downside of questions from the speaker is that they can feel canned and contained. One of the downside of questions from the audience is that they can feel over-personalized, ranting, random, off-topic … etc.

    In a perfect world, the speaker asks questions which serve to engage the audience, and are, at least part of the time, answered by the audience. As well, in the same perfect world, the speaker manages the question-askers such that no one wants to tear their hair out in clumps.

    1. Eric Bergman says

      Marcia, I didn’t realize we were talking about law. I thought we were talking about communication.

      Everyone talks about engaging the audience. When the speaker asks 50 questions, the audience may or may not be engaged. If the audience is asking 50 questions, they are engaged. They are interested. And they are probably seeking the portions of the speaker’s knowledge that aid their understanding.

      Communication is two-way and receiver-driven (instead of PowerPoint-driven, which is all to often the case).

      Yes, it must adhere to “less is more,” but that can be effectively handled. On the speaker’s side, please refer to the 10-pushup rule above.

  16. James says


    One of the best posts I’ve ever read herein. For years, I’ve thought that “hold that question” and over-reliance on PowerPoint were not only stupid, but wrong, so naturally I’m glad to see that someone not me agrees.

    In addition, the idea that questions should be brief is something that I support, and have supported, even when I’ve been told my answers are sometimes a bit, um, “short.” Fine with me.

    I think the idea of a ratio is dumb, but outside of that, I think this was a great posting.

    1. Eric Bergman says

      Hey James,

      If the ratio gets people thinking about fewer slides and talking about more interaction—or, better yet, actually changing their behaviour—it can’t be anything but positive.

  17. Roger Dooley says

    If you are going to let the audience interrupt, James, I think brief and direct answers are essential to maintaining the flow of the presentation. The question shouldn’t be an opportunity to expound on a topic, unless that was the next point in the preso anyway.


  18. Ana Hoffman says

    I find it that my questions disappear as quickly as they pop in my head and telling me to hold it will just make me forget it even faster. 😉

    But 30 questions in 30 minutes? That IS crazy!

    1. Eric Bergman says

      Ana: At first, it does sound crazy. But it can make presentations a lot more fun for both sides.

      I spoke to two groups of engineers yesterday. One hour each group. Easily more than 60 questions from each.

      Some groups do not ask questions, no matter how many opportunities you give them. Fair enough.

      But some ask lots. And it’s a thrill when you create that interactive environment, especially when they start correctly answering each others’ questions.

  19. Shawn says

    An immediate answer can clarify an element that may have confused not only the questioner but others as well.

  20. Jesse says

    If you are going to let the audience interrupt, James, I think brief and direct answers are essential to maintaining the flow of the presentation. The question shouldn’t be an opportunity to expound on a topic, unless that was the next point in the preso anyway.

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