by Dianna Booher
What's the difference between a memorable presentation that left the audience buzzing with excitement and just another boring talk that put its listeners to sleep? Often, it's the question-and-answer period.
Whether it's a keynote address to thousands or a weekly report to your staff, most audiences expect and even look forward to interaction after an address, while most speakers dread Q-and-A and avoid it if possible. Lack of confidence, fear of having one's authority questioned, apprehension about handling a hostile audience, or losing control of a meeting leaves many a speaker terrified and trembling.
Yet this is the part of your presentation that can show how much you really know about your topic, give you an opportunity to apply your key points to the group's specific situations, provide feedback on how your message was received, and strengthen your rapport with the audience. Anticipate and prepare for questions. Every other step of your presentation has been practiced and polished. Why should this step be any less planned?
What questions will likely come up? Did you avoid any controversial points? Did you give all sides of the issue? Were all the important terms fully defined? What were the questions you had when researching your presentation?
Once you identify possible questions, preplan your answers accordingly. Lack of preparation is often a failure to focus in disguise.
Explain how and when you will take questions. Generally, it's best to announce you will call for questions at the end of your presentation. Questions during your formal presentation can interrupt your train of thought, interfere with your audience's ability to follow your points, and make it hard for you to get back on track.
However, you may decide to allow questions during your prepared comments if your boss or a key decision-maker wants an immediate answer, if the audience is informal enough to be conversational, or if your presentation is highly technical, requiring constant explanation and clarification.
Either procedure will work, provided you've given forethought to your chosen method.
Listen to and consider the question. Listening before a crowd is harder than you may think. Nervousness, insecurity about the topic or your answering skills, worries about the time, or confrontation by a listener's hostile tone or body language can make you fumble a question you easily could have fielded otherwise.
Feel free to ask questions about their questions. What are they really asking? Questioners may use poor language or logic, give too much irrelevant information before getting to the point, or merely be grandstanding.
To avoid an off-base answer, clarify cloudy questions with probing questions of your own: "Let me see if I understand you correctly ..." Or, "Is your question ...? Or are you really asking "If it's possible to ...?"
Remember to respond with your entire body by leaning forward, tilting your head in reflection, and maintaining steady eye contact with the questioner.
Handle problem questions with flair. The irritable, pessimistic, long-winded, and confused seem to show up at every presentation. How you initially respond to them and their questions will set the tone for what follows.
Show-off questions are those trying to reveal the questioner's own accomplishments or knowledge. Be aware of them, answer them concisely, break eye contact, and go on. With limited-interest questions, bridge from their narrow perspective to the larger issue at hand. Or try asking if anyone else has that concern. If not, tell the person you'll be happy to visit with them after the meeting.
Off-the-subject questions can be handled by telling the questioner the issue is beyond the scope of your presentation, but you will get to it if there is time at the end. Hypothetical questions can be answered with, "We have so many real-life situations needing our attention that I'd rather stick to concrete facts, if you don't mind."
Or, prefer to side-step the hypothetical and respond only to the general concern: "Is your concern in asking that question the safety issue? Let me address the safety issue by emphasizing that ..."
Hard questions aren't always to-be-avoided questions. In fact, successfully turning a negative question into a positive point wins credibility.
Conclude the Q-and-A period with a summary. Don't let the presentation limp to a close with, "Well, if there are no more questions, that's about all, folks." Finish strong by taking control, polishing off major points, wrapping up any loose ends, reinforcing favorite points, and summarizing your key message.
Finally, present your prepared closing that pithy quote, provocation statement, or challenging question that will leave your audience charged and ready to act.
Handle Q-and-A well and you'll wow your audience. Handle it poorly and you'll
leave one big question mark.
Author/speaker Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a Dallas-based
communications training firm. Her programs include communication (writing,
oral presentations, interpersonal, customer service communications, gender,
listening, meetings, conflict) and life balance/productivity. She has published
40 books, including E-Writing: 21st-Century Tools for Effective Communication
(Pocket Books, February 2001), Communicate with Confidence!
(McGraw-Hill), and The Esther Effect (Nelson-Word). Several
have been major Book Club selections.