How do you feel about handling question and answer (Q&A) sessions? The way you deal with them will influence your audience just as much as that PowerPoint presentation you have spent so long perfecting. Although they are harder to prepare for, Q&A sessions are just as vital for your credibility and authority.
This is not the time for the ‘head in the sand’ approach – with your fingers tightly crossed - hoping that those tricky questions will not come up. Believe it or not, I know some speakers who deliberately over run their timeslot so there is no time for questions. What a wasted opportunity!
You should view the Q&A session as a positive opportunity to reinforce your key points and crush any lingering doubts in the minds of your audience. Questions are often a sign that they are engaged and interested, looking for more information. So have courage, be a leader, not a trembling victim and you will win their respect and admiration.
Anticipate those questions, especially the difficult, controversial ones, and rehearse your answers. If you focus on your key purpose, the research and planning you do for the main part of your presentation will help you to prepare for the Q&A session so you can give precise, relevant answers. You may even be able to pre-empt some of the more difficult issues by dealing with them objectively in the body of your presentation and so avoiding emotional or defensive language. You might say, for example “Sarah, I know you may not agree with the time plan for this project and you believe we need more resource. But my proposal shows how we can meet the demands of the new legislation even though we have to act more quickly than we would ideally like.”
When should you take questions?
Especially if you are speaking to a large audience, such as at a conference, it is best to leave questions to the end. This avoids the problem of getting side-tracked from your main points or having to deal with issues out of sequence.
If the audience is of a more manageable size and you know that there are some key executives or ‘thought leaders’ present, a good tip is to proactively invite questions from them about five minutes into your presentation. Such people often have short attention spans and can be disruptive if their issues are not addressed promptly. You could ask high level questions like “Does this approach meet your success criteria?” or “Is this strategy broadly in line with your HR policy?”
Whatever approach you take, leave plenty of time for questions. Make it clear to your audience when you have finished your presentation and are ready to move on to the Q&A session. You can simply say, “That concludes my presentation. I would now like to take questions.” Or you can narrow the focus by stating for example “Have you any questions on the two alternative approaches I have outlined?”
Once you have opened up the session to questions from the audience, maintain confident body language and pause for a full 10 seconds. This should be long enough to flush out questions. If there is a silence, don’t wait for it to become embarrassing - here are two possible strategies.
The first is to prepare for this by planting questions with supportive members of the audience. The second strategy is to say “I have given this presentation to a number of audiences and an issue that often comes up is…..” This usually unblocks the question ‘log jam’ and gives people the courage to speak up.
In any large gathering, it is helpful to ask people to stand up when they ask their question and to give their name and organisation before they speak. This gives context to their questions and has the added advantage that they are less likely to be hostile and aggressive than if they are under a ‘cloak of anonymity’.
I will be dealing with the subject of addressing a hostile audience in a future post but if you want help with that now, you can ring me on 07939 541927.
Handling the questions
- Once the questions start flowing, keep control and don’t let one person dominate the session. If a number of hands go up, tell people what order you will take the questions in
- Force yourself to listen attentively to the whole question. Don’t let your mind race ahead to what you think or fear the questioner may be saying. Don’t start composing your answer before you are sure what is really being asked
- Separate multiple questions and deal with them one by one
- Always repeat the question to clarify what has been asked and to involve the whole audience. If you are concerned that you may not have fully understood, especially if the question was long and rambling, summarise as well as you can and ask the questioner for clarification immediately
- Whether or not you think you know the answer, pause for a moment to collect your thoughts before you speak. Aim to give a clear, succinct answer - not a mini presentation
- Treat all questions with the greatest respect even if deep down you feel they are foolish or ill-informed
- Always acknowledge concerns – they are real to the audience even if you think they are unfounded. Even if you have, don’t say, “I have already answered that issue” as this can cause embarrassment or resentment. Some experts recommend crediting or praising the questioner “That’s a great question” or “Thank you for that perspective on the issue” but if you do, it must be spontaneous and sincere, otherwise it can sound patronising
- Use the question to refer back to the main points you want your audience to remember. For example, if you are questioned about the facts underpinning your proposal, don’t just list when and where you did the research. Take the chance to expand on the main points you made in your presentation, explain in more detail how you gathered the facts and why your proposal is the best way to address the issue
- Keep the focus on defending and supporting your key purpose. Don’t be tempted to defend yourself even if you feel you are being personally attacked. And certainly don’t get dragged into a review of your credentials or experience in this public arena
- Remember to breathe as you deal with the stress and be careful of your body language. It’s natural for emotions to run high, but make sure you don’t put your hands on your hips (which can look arrogant) or wag your finger at the audience (which can be seen as antagonistic and provocative). Aggressive or defensive answers suggest a weakness, so stay cool and your composure will relax the audience
- Keep control of the flow of questions. Don’t get side-tracked by the details of an individual situation or you risk losing the support of the rest of your audience. Give a concise, top level answer, then invite the questioner to meet you during the break or after the meeting so you can give the matter your full attention ‘offline’
- Watch the time and make your answers short and to the point.
But what if you can’t answer the question?
The number one rule here is “tell the truth”. If you try to bluff or worse still tell a lie, it will certainly come back and do you some damage. Maybe not today but one day……………
So if all your careful preparation has not covered a totally unexpected tricky question, here are three things to try:
- Use the approach of “Leave it with me, I’ll get back to you” – but with a new twist. Dispel the audience’s cynicism by conspicuously writing the question down, announcing that you are writing it down and asking for the questioner’s contact details. If you are sure you can keep to it, you can also make a public commitment about the timescale for your response. “I will get you an answer within 24 hours” is much stronger than “I will get back to you.” But whatever you do, don’t miss that self-imposed and very public deadline!
- Reflect the question back. After giving the questioner a sincere and genuine compliment “That is the first time I have heard that idea expressed. It puts a whole new perspective on my proposal”, you can either ask the questioner how he/she would answer the question or you can defer to an expert in the audience. If it is a technical issue and you have technical colleagues in the audience, ask one of them by name if they would like to make a contribution. But beware! Don’t put an unprepared colleague on the spot unless you are 100% confident they can answer competently
- Give a parallel answer – draw on your experience of a similar situation in another field (to reinforce your expertise) and then say you need to take advice about how the idea would work in the situation under discussion. For example, if you have previously worked in healthcare but are now doing consultancy in another sector, you could say “I am aware of how this could be applied in healthcare but there may be other implications in your markets. Let me think about it and we can discuss it at our meeting next Tuesday”.
To sum up
Treat the Q&A session as an integral and vital part of your presentation and plan how you will handle it. Anticipate as many questions as you can and rehearse your answers. Tell the audience when they can ask questions and make sure you address the whole audience not just the specific questioner. Stay calm and composed, and be positive but don’t ramble. Focus on your key points and be honest if you can’t answer a question there and then. Keep your promises, and follow up with any information or issues you agree to deal with as soon as possible after the presentation.
If you follow this advice, and you prepare and practice, I am confident you will give yourself the very best chance of making the Q&A session an outstanding opportunity and not an ordeal.