How To Prepare For Q & A During And After Your Presentation
So, you are willing to add a little zest to your talk by answering questions. Now what? Unless the prospect of public humiliation exhilarates you, don’t enter the Q&A arena without a plan. Study these rules before you invite the first question:
1. Know the terrain. Don’t simply cross your fingers and fervently hope that the members of your audience will not ask the questions that you are dreading. They will. In the same way that a predatory animal can sense fear, an audience has an uncanny ability to zero in with amazing accuracy on just those particular questions. So you had better be prepared, lest you find yourself under the heat of the spotlight, babbling incoherently. What can you do? Start by knowing as much as possible about your audience before you speak so that you can anticipate the questions and plan your responses.
2. Devise a plan. Before you speak, decide whether you will field questions during or after your prepared speech. In your introduction or in your opening comments, clarify for your audience which approach you will take. Each has inherent advantages and disadvantages.
Accepting questions during the speech typically heightens the interest for everyone; it enables you to gauge your audience’s response and level of understanding immediately, and it gives you an opportunity to correct misunderstandings quickly (what seems clear to you may be murky to your audience). This approach can be risky, however, if one of the questions is only marginally related to your topic (it happens) or if it baffles you (this also happens). In addition, the questions might divert your audience’s attention from your message. Finally, if you accept questions during the speech, your allotted time can quickly evaporate, so plan accordingly.
On the other hand, if you hold all questions until you have completed your speech, you will be able to cover all your points without interruption. Unfortunately, without immediate input from the members of your audience, you limit your ability to evaluate their reaction to your message. Moreover, your listeners may forget their questions or be reluctant to raise questions regarding a subject that you covered much earlier.
Either approach will work, but you need to pick your path before you begin to speak.
3. Understand the question. Here is a simple rule: if you don’t understand a question, don’t guess and don’t answer. No one will think that you are a dunce if you ask the questioner to explain or clarify the question. That is definitely preferable to taking a wild stab at it and answering unresponsively or incorrectly. If you are clueless, but you plunge into a response anyway, you may create confusion; irritate the questioner, who will conclude that you are being evasive or flippant; and irk the other audience members, who may conclude that you are patronizing one of their kindred spirits in the audience. Any of these results will open Pandora’s box for you, so clarify before responding.
4. Schmooze. If you want to encourage questions, create a friendly, nonthreatening atmosphere. Solicit participation with an open-ended invitation for questions: “I know I covered that topic quickly. What questions do you have?” Also acknowledge and thank audience members for their participation: “Thank you for that question.” This respectful attitude toward those who ask questions—yes, even when all you really want to do is sock the bozo, whose goal it is to agitate you, in the nose— helps to build audience rapport.
But, avoid saying, “That is an excellent question,” because you risk offending others who have already asked a question (“Hey, what about me? My question was better than his!”). Audiences can be hypersensitive, so don’t single anyone out for special praise.
5. Repeat the question. If your audience is large, repeat the question before responding to ensure that everyone has heard it. The listeners will appreciate your audience focus, and you will gain additional time to consider your response.(If you are momentarily stumped, even a few seconds can help while your brain whirs away in a desperate search for a reasonably intelligent thought.)
6. Reframe the question. Occasionally, some ninny in your audience will plop a disjointed, convoluted, or complex question in your lap. Address such queries cautiously, because they can undermine you quickly. Paraphrase the question if it is confusing: “Let me see if I can restate your question so that I am sure I understand it.” If it is a compound question, break it into bite-size segments: “I think you have asked several questions, so let me attempt to respond to each one separately.” Finally, if the question is irrelevant, smile, say so, and move on: “Thank you for the question, but that is really beyond the scope of my talk today.” Your goal is to respond in a direct, logical fashion and to remain focused. If the question causes your intuitive alarms to blare “Danger! Danger!” proceed warily.
7. Be responsive. You will seldom persuade your listeners with ambiguity or evasiveness (a principle no politicians have learned). Stop futzing around and answer as honestly and as directly as possible. Don’t stall, hoping that a pithy insight will pop into your noggin. If you ignore the question, or if you launch into your “speaking points” to rehash your position, your evident elusiveness will undermine your credibility. Of course, if you are honest and responsive, there is a price to pay as well: you will have eliminated your prospects of running for political office.
8. If you do not know, admit it. Some speakers feel that saying “I don’t know” will cause them to turn to stone. But it is not merely okay to admit ignorance; it is preferable at times. Unless the question is clearly one that you should know the answer to , it’s perfectly acceptable to respond by saying, “I am sorry, but I don’t know the answer. I will try to find out and get back to you.”
Understand, however, that there is no substitute for thorough preparation, and if you are intentionally unresponsive or cagey, your audience will quickly become exasperated, and you will undermine your credibility.
9. Exude confidence with your body language. Your goal is to exude confidence when you speak , so don’t forget that when you begin to take questions. Here is a laundry list of what not to do: don’t stand ramrod stiff, clutch the lectern with ferocity, recoil, flop over the lectern, prop your chin in your hand, scowl, wince, or draw your face taut. Such body language and facial expressions diminish the message of self-confidence that you want to convey, and frighten small children and animals.Look interested and relaxed. Being prepared. Preparation will do wonders for your confidence and your stage presence.
10. Remain composed. Stay positive and composed despite questions and comments that are antagonistic (“Your position is just double-dumb!”), personal (“I would not expect an insensitive half-wit like you to understand!”), or irrelevant (“Can vegetarians eat animal crackers?”). Do not let hostile questioners provoke an angry response from you. That response is often precisely what they want to accomplish. Rather, be firm but polite. Smile, grit your teeth, and agree to disagree. Shouting invectives may be cathartic, but it is neither helpful nor persuasive.
11. Target the majority. You will rarely convince everyone to accept your position, so don’t waste valuable time and energy addressing questions from the malcontent minority and attempting to persuade them. Focus instead on the concerns of the majority of your audience. Some members of your audience would not accept your position if it were an edict chiseled in granite and delivered from heaven. Move on confidently, smugly knowing in your heart that they are wrong and you are right.
12. Be brief. Get to the point. Don’t ramble, filibuster, or browbeat when responding. This only annoys your listeners, creates confusion, and generates more questions. Your listeners will better understand and remember concise, focused answers. Being brief also enables you to address more questions in the time allotted. Answer succinctly and let your listeners get on with their lives.
13. Follow up. After you have responded to a question, occasionally ask a follow-up question, such as “Does that make sense?” or “Does that answer your question?” This demonstrates that
you are genuinely interested in seeing that the questioner understands your point. But avoid follow-up if it prevents you from addressing questions from other audience members, if the questioner is argumentative, or if you are anxious to move on to the next question (just be darn thankful that you were able to mumble something marginally lucid in your answer).
14. Maintain control of the room. Sometimes, multiple conversations or even heated arguments—complete with name-calling, finger-pointing, and fist waving—will erupt during a question-and-answer session. Disruptions can escalate into chaos if you ignore them.
Pause and politely ask those who are causing the disruption to hold their comments so that everyone can hear both you and the person asking the question. Allow the agitators to be heard only if you have time on the program and are so inclined. It is your responsibility as a speaker to maintain control of the room. If all else fails, suggest that they settle their disagreement by arm wrestling in the hallway; resort to your crowd-control mace and tasers only in dire circumstances.
15. Monitor the time. Always adhere to the time allotted for your presentation. So when you are preparing your speech, budget time for questions. If your time on the program has expired, stop. Don’t continue to field questions, especially if others are speaking after you. Instead, inform your audience that you will be available to answer all their questions one-on- one after the program or through e-mail.
16. Practice Q&A. Round up all your inquisitive, annoying, and stubborn friends (don’t tell them that this combination of characteristics is why they were selected) and role-play. Practice responding to their questions with concise, well- organized responses. This will hone your ability to think on your feet and to formulate crisp, responsive answers. Have your inquisitors ask every conceivable type of question, because that is exactly what you can expect from your audience: compound, convoluted, and confrontational questions posed by bewildered, inarticulate, and hostile questioners.
Some of the questioners in your audience will have amazingly fertile imaginations, others will have hidden agendas, and still others will just be dunderheads. Inevitably there will be at least one who relishes the sound of her own voice and will welcome any opportunity to pontificate. The practice sessions will help you prepare for all of them.
17. Study recordings. Compose yourself first; then dive in and analyze recordings of both your practice sessions and your live presentations involving Q&A. This study may be painful, but it will be profitable, I promise.
Be analytical and ask yourself these questions: “Was I responsive, or were my answers gibberish?” “Was I focused, or did I blather?” “Did I sound confident, or did I sound confused?” “Did I focus on the questioner, or did I allow my eyes to dart around?” “Did my body language and facial expressions convey poise, or did I look like a crazed, trapped animal?” Mr. Camera reveals exactly what your audience will see, so study the recordings, internalize the lessons, and address any deficiencies.
Venturing from your script can be unnerving, but you can calm your jitters and minimize the risks with careful planning. Handle questions adroitly, and you will distinguish yourself and enhance your stature and credibility with every audience. But never enter the question-and- answer briar patch unprepared; many speakers have done that, and they have not been heard from since.