Presentations can be scary. So scary, in fact, that the question and answer sessions (Q&A) which often follow them are rarely given much forethought. Yet a strong presentation can easily be undermined by a vocal critic or a poorly answered question. To ensure success, consider following a few simple rules:

1. Prepare for the worst

Even the most seemingly agreeable topics can spark passionate debate. With this in mind, always assume the worst when preparing for a Q&A. It is better to prepare answers and not need them than to expect a docile audience and be caught off-guard.

Put yourself in the mind of the most cynical audience member you can imagine and think of the three toughest questions they might ask. Plan your response to each and keep them in mind or on a scrap of paper in case of need

2. Ask for questions in advance.

Although difficult questions can be challenging, they are usually preferable to silence. It can be awkward for a speaker to open the floor to questions, only to be met with a sea of blank faces.

The easiest way to avoid this is to allow people to submit questions in advance. This can be done with basic software, such as Survey Monkey, or you can simply ask your audience to email any questions to you directly. Not only will this ensure you begin the Q&A with at least a few queries to choose from, but seeing the questions ahead of time will help you to gauge the views of your listeners.

3. Answer questions at the end

A decision faced by many speakers is whether to allow questions throughout their presentation or to take them at the end. Taking questions throughout might seem a good way to tackle issues as they arise and make the session more interactive. Yet in truth, when a question is asked mid-speech it disrupts the speaker’s flow, like adverts interrupting a television programme. While you address the question, members of the audience to whom it does not relate will find their minds start to wander, creating extra work later as you have to regain their attention.

If in doubt, take questions at the end. The lack of interruptions will facilitate audience engagement and ensure your messages have more impact.

4. Manage audience expectations

Q&As are regularly viewed like an exam. Not knowing the answer to a question can feel akin to failure, and as a result, we often place huge pressure on ourselves. At the same time, a presenter that claims to have all the answers makes a tempting target for a cynical audience.

Invincibility is an unrealistic and unhelpful goal to aspire to. It is perfectly acceptable not to know every answer, as long as you manage expectations upfront. At the start of the Q&A, make it clear that you will endeavour to respond to every question as best you can but may not have all the answers. Commit to finding out any answers you do not know after the session and responding to the audience at a later date. Doing this will not only greatly reduce the pressure but also lessen the likelihood of anyone trying to catch you out.

5. Maximise your thinking time

How many times have you replayed a conversation in your head and wished, with hindsight, that you had said something different? When it comes to Q&As, our instinctive answer to a question is rarely the most concise. With this in mind, the more you can maximise thinking time, the better your final answer is likely to be.

The simplest way to achieve this is to let audience members finish their question completely, and then pause for a few seconds before answering. This sounds obvious, but there is a huge temptation to interrupt someone when we think we know the answer to their question. Instead, stay silent and use the extra thinking time to ensure your response is as good as it can be.

6. Repeat questions for clarity

When audience members feel passionately about a topic, a question can sometimes morph into a monologue or even a rant. When the time comes to answer, it can be tricky working out which of the many points to address.

The most effective way to respond to a rambling question is to extract what you believe to be the crux of the query and repeat it before answering (e.g. “Thanks, what I’m hearing is…”). By doing this you can quickly condense a monologue into something much more definitive and answerable, rather than needing to respond to every issue raised.

7. Reflect tough questions

Occasionally you may find yourself completely stumped by a question. In these situations, our natural reaction is to flounder or waffle while we try to think of a suitable response. Instead, consider reflecting the query back to its originator, with something along the lines of:

“That’s an interesting point and I think there are a few ways you could approach it. Before responding, I’d be keen to understand your personal view on this.”

The advantage of this approach is that you can listen to the audience member’s answer before either offering your own or dissecting the pros and cons of theirs. This is a particularly useful technique if you suspect someone is trying to catch you out with an unanswerable question.

8. Always have an opinion

It is vital to self-moderate when speaking in public. One misjudged phrase or poorly chosen word can easily damage a carefully built stage persona. Yet at the same time, never let a fear of saying the wrong thing stop you from saying anything at all. Audiences recognise spin and will quickly stop listening to a speaker that constantly stays on the fence or toes the company line. Speakers with strong, reasoned views are much more likely to hold their attention, so consider your opinions and feel confident sharing them.

9. Reinforce your main message at the end

However the Q&A goes, it is all too easy for the original messages of your presentation to get diluted or forgotten amongst all the discussion. This means by the time the Q&A session has finished, there is a possibility your audience may have forgotten what you were originally trying to tell them.

To mitigate this, always wrap up the Q&A with a couple of sentences that reinforce your main message. This should be brief, as it is likely that you will be at the end of your allotted time. Simply rehearse it once or twice beforehand to ensure it sounds natural.

What other techniques have worked for you in Q&As?

Click on the ‘leave a comment’ box below.

Thanks to Michael Foster.

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