For many speakers, the question and answer session that follows the presentation is an afterthought, but it shouldn’t be! If handled well, it can drive home what you’ve carefully presented. If handled poorly, though, it can dismantle what you’ve built. Q & A sessions are like a series of small impromptu speeches. While you can’t know every question that might be asked, you are still expected to respond knowledgably and responsibly. Here are 4 strategies to help you do just that.
Q & A gives you the opportunity to hear other perspectives, clear up misconceptions, respond to criticisms, drive home important points, and build rapport with your audience. Remember that the Q & A is not a “me-versus-the audience” scenario. If people are asking questions, even if they disagree with or challenge you, they are interested in what you are presenting. Harvard Business School professor and researcher Alison Wood Brooks found that reframing the situation is “a simple, minimal intervention that can be used quickly and easily to prime an opportunity mind-set and improve performance.” In other words, rather than viewing Q & A as a gauntlet you have to make it through, recognize it as the opportunity it is.
Prepare & Admit What You Don’t Know
One of the primary reasons Q & A sessions can be scary is speakers fear they’ll be asked a question they don’t know the answer to. Attack this fear in two steps. First, prior to the presentation make a list of the questions you might be asked and take some time to formulate answers to those. Second, remember that it’s okay not to know something. When I worked at the headquarters for a large corporation in Kansas City, we were taught that it’s okay to say “I don’t know” but only if we told the client that we would do some research and then follow up. So the response became something like, “I don’t know, but I will definitely look into that and will get back to you with what I find.” And if someone asks a question that is outside of the scope of the presentation or your research, it’s okay to say so, pointing them to another authority or source that might be able to help them find answers.
Be Brief & Calm
Remember that the Q & A session is meant to give the audience time to voice their questions and concerns. If you launch into another full presentation with each question asked, you won’t have time for many people to speak. So keep your responses brief while making sure you fully answer the question. If you fear your answer was insufficient, you can always ask, “did that answer your question?” or “did I address your concern?” If a Q & A session gets emotional, it’s okay to acknowledge those emotions. Doing so will both validate and defuse them. For example, if someone asks a heated question, you might start your response with, “I see and understand your frustration.” Award-winning speaker, Craig Valentine says, “Many times they just want to be heard and understood. The one thing I do not do is fire back and ignite the situation.” When things get tense, explain rather than argue.
While the Q & A gives the audience a chance to be heard, it’s up to you, the speaker, to control the session and guide the discussion. If an audience member asks a question that is unclear, ask him to rephrase it. If the question is irrelevant to the topic of the Q & A, you might respond by saying, “Thanks for your question. However, in the time we have together, I’d like to focus our comments and questions to the current topic.” Likewise, if someone is dominating the Q & A when others want to talk, look for a way to tactfully guide the conversation elsewhere. When the dominant audience member pauses, you might try saying, “I appreciate your enthusiasm/passion for this topic, and I’d love the chance to discuss this further with you; however, in the time we have left, I’d like to allow for others to speak.” Audience members will respect a presenter who handles the Q & A with both respect and authority.
Effectively handling a Q & A session is just one of the ways you can level up your presentation skills. For more ways to become a master presenter, register today for our online presentation skills course.