Congratulations: you’ve sufficiently overcome your fear of public speaking to get up in front of an audience and give that presentation you’ve been practicing. But wait! Now there is a whole new source of anxiety awaiting you: the dreaded question-and-answer (Q&A) session, where many a train of thought has completely derailed. The very nature of Q&A implies some lessening of control on the part of the speaker, and that can be scary. The good news is that a well-handled Q&A can enhance the audience’s perception of you as an expert. If you keep these five tips in mind, you’re much more likely to keep your audience engaged and impress them with your poise and expertise.
- Never ask, “Are there any questions?” This question puts your listeners on the spot, especially if it comes at the end of the presentation. Instead, always assume there are questions, and elicit them thusly: “This would be a good spot for me to pause and take some of your questions. Who has the first one, to get us started?”
- When you’ve asked for questions, shut up! Don’t restate anything, or add a thought you suddenly remembered. Create silence and make it clear by your body language and probing eye contact that that silence will only be filled by someone in the audience asking a question. Count silently to yourself, “One, one thousand, two, one thousand…” and be prepared to wait for ten seconds for someone to speak up. Ten seconds sounds like nothing, but it is an uncomfortably long time – someone is bound to speak up before then. (Watch and count next time you see a speaker ask for questions; hardly anyone waits for more than two or three seconds for a response.)
- In the unlikely event that no one has spoken up after you’ve waited ten seconds – or if you just can’t wait that long (it takes practice!) – you must then defuse the tension by asking a question yourself, using this technique: say, “A question I am often asked at this point is…” and proceed to ask and answer your own question. Make it real, and make it relevant. You’ll need to have this question in mind before you start. This technique is preferable to “planting” a question with an audience member. Once you’ve asked and answered your own question, ask, “Now who has the next one?” and you should be able to get the ball rolling.
- Regardless of the audience size or the room acoustics, it is best to develop the habit of always repeating (or, if necessary, restating) a question before you answer it. If the room is large, this is essential – especially if you are using a microphone. If you don’t repeat the question, you are excluding those who didn’t hear it clearly from the discussion at the very time that you are supposed to be engaging them. Even if acoustics aren’t the issue, there are three other reasons why you should always repeat the question: (1) Doing so honors the person who asked it by demonstrating active listening. (2) Restating ensures that you have understood the question accurately. (3) The few seconds it takes to restate a question will help you in formulating your best answer.
- Never finish with Q&A. In a long informative presentation or workshop, you probably need to pause for Q&A after 15 or 20 minutes, or possibly less. Build time for these sessions into your overall plan. This ensures you haven’t lost people in the first ten minutes of a 45-minute session because of a question you didn’t solicit and answer. Even in a short presentation where you only do a single Q&A session near the end, don’t make it the very last thing. Always save your prepared conclusion for after the Q&A. What do people most remember? The first impression and the last thing you say. You never want that last thing to be, “If there are no more questions, then thank you very much.” That’s lame.
Now, who has the first question?