Many people fear a question and answer (Q&A) session more than having to deliver the presentation itself.
For them, it represents the unknown, the uncontrolled and therefore, an opportunity for things to go terribly wrong.
In reality, the Q&A session is an opportunity to demonstrate your expertise even further and to double check that your audience have received your presentation message loud and clear.
A good Q&A session can energise an audience, inspire them and leave a positive memory of your presentation.
If Q&A sessions can have this impact, it’s important we get them right. So here’s my ultimate guide to handling Q&A, in the form of twenty top tips to employ before, during and after your next question and answer session!
Before the Q&A session:
Ok, let’s start with the obvious (you would be amazed at how many people still don’t do this).
Before the day, brainstorm any obvious questions and prepare answers to them. Better still, amend your presentation so that it answers the obvious questions.
After all, your objective is to cover everything that your audience needs to know to persuade them of your opinion.
Set the rules for your audience
Never forget that as the speaker, you are the leader of the room. Set the rules for audience questions at the very start of your presentation. Let your audience know whether you are happy to take questions as you go, or if you would like them to save questions until the end. It’s your presentation, so you need to set the rules that make you feel most comfortable and confident as a presenter.
If someone asks a question during your presentation that will be answered later in your slide deck, don’t be afraid to postpone the question with a polite ‘we’ll come to that later’. Again, you are the leader of the room and you don’t want to confuse your audience by answering a question ahead of time and destroying the logical flow of your presentation.
During the Q&A session:
Restate the question
When you are asked a question, immediately restate it. This serves three purposes:
1. It allows you to confirm that you have heard the question correctly
2. It allows the rest of the audience to clearly hear the question too
3. It buys you a few more seconds to construct your answer
Check that you have answered the question
Once you have delivered your answer, be sure to return to your questioner and check with them that the answer is satisfactory with a quick, ‘has that answered your question?’. You wouldn’t leave a customer without checking that your product or service had been delivered to their full satisfaction, and the same rules apply to answering questions!
Keep your answers clear and to the point. If you feel yourself waffling, stop, take a breath and confirm the key points of your answer in short sharp statements.
There’s no quicker way to destroy your position as the expert in the room than through long, waffling, unintelligible answers to simple questions.
Don’t get sucked into comments
Some people want all the attention, and it’s these people that will try and grab the attention during a Q&A session by asking a question that isn’t really a question, it’s just a chance for them to get their opinion across to the audience.
If this happens to you, don’t be afraid to ask your questioner to confirm exactly what their question is before attempting to answer it. If they have clearly just stated an opinion and not asked a question, thank them for their opinion and move on.
It’s not rude for you to take control of a situation like this, as ultimately it’s your role to ensure that the audience have an interesting, relevant and rounded Q&A session.
Don’t praise questions
Sounds odd doesn’t it? It’s not unusual to hear a speaker start an answer with “That’s a good question…”.
The problem is, if you praise one question highly, what does that say about the rest of the questions that you are asked – are they not as good? How does that make your audience feel?
It’s a little thing, but one that I have personally seen influence the willingness of an audience to ask questions. Once a ‘good question’ is asked, the rest of the room become hesitant to ask their own questions, just in case they are not as good!
I’m not even going to bother writing an explanation for this one. You know why. It’s amazing how many people panic and still do it though (!).
Involve your audience
The very best presentations are those that involve their audience and become a conversation rather than just a lecture. The same applies to Q&A sessions. If you can turn your Q&A session into an interactive piece with other people in the room giving opinions and answering questions your audience will be more engaged and ultimately everyone will get more benefit from the shared wisdom.
The best way to achieve this is by opening up some questions to the audience. Ask their opinion, or if anyone in the room has anything to add. Think of yourself not as the person being interrogated, but instead as the chat show host, getting everyone involved in the topic of the day!
Don’t assume everyone knows as much as you do
When we know it, it seems so simple. It’s also then easy to forget that our audience may not share our expertise. Be sure to define key terms and ideas within your answer to ensure that everyone can keep up with what you are saying.
If you are unsure about what your audience do and do not know, then ask. Your audience would rather answer a few questions about their knowledge and then be able to follow your answer than have no questions and not a clue what it is that you are saying!
Split ‘big’ questions into smaller chunks
There will always be complicated questions. To help you answer them, and your audience to follow them, break the more complicated questions down into chunks. For example, answer using three key steps, four main thoughts, or perhaps the five main areas that need to be addressed.
Your audience are seeking clear communication of great ideas, give them this with a structured, bite size answer.
Ask your questioner to stand up
Asking the person who asks the question to stand up is another great way to ensure that everyone in the room can clearly hear the question that is being asked. It also makes the questioner feel important and valued, which is a nice thank you to them for being so kind as to contribute!
Provide pens and paper for your audience to write questions on
This is especially useful if you are delivering a long presentation or if your topic is a sensitive one. Give your audience a pen and paper to write questions on so that a. they don’t forget them, and b. they can submit them anonymously if they wish.
Anonymous question submission using a post box at the front of the stage is a great way to take questions on sensitive topics that the audience might not feel comfortable standing up and asking in front of the whole room.
Ask your own questions
The speakers’ worst nightmare is asking ‘are there any questions?’ and seeing row upon row of blank, unmoving faces before them.
The audience not having any questions is a good sign. It means that your presentation was so good that it answered all of the queries that they had!
To avoid an awkward silence, prepare a few questions of your own regarding opinion on the topic that you spoke about. Ask them to the audience and ask them for their views. A Q&A session can work both ways!
After the Q&A session:
Deliver a conclusion
Your presentation should always end on a high with a clear final thought for your audience. A Q&A session at the end of your talk often dilutes the energy and your spot can be in danger of just drying out with no real energy.
Instead, prepare a short conclusion for after the Q&A session and ask your host if you can deliver it once all of the questions have been asked. This way, you can still leave a clear, positive final thought in the mind of your audience AND have a full Q&A session!
End on time
No one likes to be held up any longer than they need to. There are trains to catch, buffet dinners to eat and dentist appointments to get to. Finish on time and your audience will be forever grateful to you.
Be prepared to answer more questions afterwards
Ultimately you want your presentation to inspire your audience, start conversations and ignite ideas. Always let your audience know that you are happy to answer any questions that couldn’t fit into your Q&A session afterwards in the bar, and embrace the impact that your presentation and outstanding Q&A have had!