A great Q&A session (#16 on my list of 25 essential skills for a public speaker) does not materialize just because you (or the event organizers) include it on the agenda.
A great Q&A session – one that adds value to your presentation – requires planning and thoughtful contributions from both the audience and the speaker.
Q&A from Audience Perspective
From the perspective of audience members, Gretchen Rubin offers ten tips for asking questions from the audience:
- Wait for the microphone, if there is one.
- Pause for silence – don’t talk over a chattering crowd.
- Don’t make excuses for yourself. This is tiresome and unnecessary.
- Don’t address speakers by their first names. Some people will disagree with me, I’m sure, but this always strikes me as affected and inappropriately familiar, unless the mood of the presentation is extremely casual.
- Don’t be long-winded.
- Plan it out. This will help you avoid being long-winded.
- Don’t ask double question. Give other people a chance.
- If appropriate, say a little about yourself. Just a little.
- Speak up. Nothing’s more frustrating to the audience than not being able to hear a question.
- Remember: you’ll be happy that you asked a question. I’m one of those people who rarely asks a question at such an occasion. I never spoke in class in law school. But whenever I do participate, I feel more engaged and enjoy myself more. I’m working on speaking up.
Though it isn’t always the case, let’s assume that your audience has read and followed Ms. Rubin’s excellent advice. If so, then the audience will fulfill their half of the Q&A contract. What can you do as a speaker to ensure a great Q&A?
Before the Q&A
- Plan for a Q&A. Too often, speakers fill their entire allotted time with their (formal) presentation. The consequence is that the Q&A session either doesn’t happen (everyone loses) or it is forced to run overtime (audience members may be hungry, irritated, or have to leave). Budget for the Q&A when you plan the presentation. Cut material as necessary to ensure you allow time for the Q&A.
- Be prepared. Anticipate the questions that will be asked. Look at your presentation objectively, and use your audience analysis to predict their questions. When appropriate, prepare a few “extra” slides (perhaps the ones that you cut out of your final formal presentation) that will assist in addressing questions during the Q&A. If you have presented the material before, the questions you have received in the past are likely to come up again if you have not altered the core presentation.
- Announce the Q&A. Some speakers welcome questions throughout a presentation; most speakers, however, prefer to handle questions near the end. If you fall into the latter group, don’t leave your audience wondering if there will be a Q&A. Announce this early, and you will accomplish two things: (1) Your audience is reassured that they will have a chance to pose questions and (2) Your audience is encouraged to start thinking of questions.
- Encourage questions. When you announce the Q&A session, be positive. “I look forward to addressing your questions” rather than “At 10:45, we’ll have the obligatory fifteen minutes for questions.” At certain points in your presentation, you may also want to encourage questions. “Does anyone have any questions about this process?” or “If anyone has questions or comments about this process, please bring them forward in the Q&A session.”
During the Q&A
- Restate the question, perhaps in your own words. Doing this provides two benefits. First, you increase the likelihood that the audience has heard the question. Second, you increase the likelihood that you understand the question before you proceed to answer it.
- Don’t assume everyone in your audience has the same background knowledge about the question that you do. No audience member wants to hear a response like “Yes, John, the ___ strategy would be appropriate for a company like yours because…” if they don’t know which company is being referred to or what kind of company it is. Share any contextual knowledge you have so that the audience better understands the question as well as your answer. A better alternative would be “[setting the context] John is the CEO of Frodo Solutions, a consulting company which helps small businesses with ___. [now, addressing the question] Yes, John, the ___ strategy would be appropriate for a company like yours because…”
- Give your full attention to the person asking the question. Show them professional courtesy by listening to their entire question before beginning your response. If you interrupt, the message you are sending is “I’m not really interested in your question. I’m more interested in talking…”
- Keep the questions on topic. Too often, presenters will say “This is getting off topic, but the answer is…” and then proceed to bore most of the audience. It is better to say “That’s a great question, but a little off topic. Let’s discuss that offline.” Use the same approach if you are asked a question that would just take too long to adequately answer within the time allotted.
- Don’t let a single person dominate the Q&A. Maybe they are a heckler with an intent to disrupt, or maybe they just feel that all of their questions need to be given priority. In either case, be assertive and deflect their questions offline. Give other audience members a chance to ask their questions.
- Be truthful. If you don’t know the answer, then say you don’t know the answer. Don’t lie. Don’t mislead. Don’t tap dance around the question for two minutes giving your sales pitch without ever addressing the question. Don’t risk your integrity to avoid embarrassment. Acknowledge that you don’t know the answer. Consider asking your audience if anyone has the answer.
After the Q&A
- Invite follow-up questions. Stick around after your presentation, or make yourself available at a later time. Provide contact information. Your goal is to leave no question unanswered.
- Don’t end your presentation with your last Q&A response. This is generally a weak conclusion, especially if the last question/answer was negative or neutral. Save your concluding words (and perhaps your final slides) for after the formal Q&A.
Some speaking opportunities do not allow for a full Q&A session (e.g. the 60-second elevator pitch). However, the majority of presentations are enhanced by the inclusion of a productive Q&A session. Do your part, and trust that the audience will do theirs.
What have I missed? Please share your tips for leading a great Q&A session.
Other Q&A Resources
- David Greenberg: How to Master the Question-And-Answer Session
- Speaker’s Bank: Top 10 Tips for Handling a Question and Answer Session