Seven Secrets to Help the
Savvy Presenter Stir a Q&A Back onto Solid Ground
Next to the invitation to speak, the customer's offhand comment, "Oh, by the way, leave a little time at the end for questions," causes the greatest concern among presenters. Why? You as a presenter may lack confidence in your understanding of the subject or project in general. You may dread not knowing the answer to a specific question. You may fear that someone will question your authority or the accuracy of your information. You may worry about stammering and faltering while delivering unplanned answers or being forced to answer questions you would rather didn't surface. You may be apprehensive about handling a hostile audience or participant. You may fear losing control. You may feel that you've been put on the spot because of an unpopular answer. Any or all of these possibilities can cause high anxiety.
So why bother? Audiences have come to expect time for Q&A - it is their chance to get you to "meet the press," so to speak, particularly on controversial points. But in addition to meeting audience expectations, Q&A periods benefit you, the presenter.
Questions provide feedback on how your presentation was received and give you a chance to clear up any misunderstandings. If you get a really off-the-wall question, you know that a key point was misinterpreted by at least one listener. And nothing reveals your depth of knowledge, credibility, and communication skills as impressively as unrehearsed answers to unplanned questions. The only problem - keeping them on track when things go south.
Tip #1: Explain How and When You Will Take Questions
You can prevent problems upfront if you take a little time to set up the framework. How long will you allow for questions? Will questioners have to come to the microphone, or can they be heard from their seats? Will listeners voice their questions or submit them on paper or by e-mail? Do you want to be interrupted during your prepared comments, or would you prefer all questions be held until the end?
Generally, it is best to announce that you will call for questions at the end of your presentation. Taking questions during your presentation may interrupt your train of thought, making it difficult to get back on track. Interrupting questions also may interfere with the audience's ability to digest the point you are making. Finally, with interrupting questions, you need to be creative in making smooth bridging statements from the answers back to your prepared comments. With "Now where was I?" as you return to your presentation outline, the questioner may feel the question was unwelcome and consequently may feel embarrassed or hostile toward you.
On certain occasions, you may decide to allow questions during your prepared comments - especially if they come from a boss, key decision maker, or other VIP whom you would not want to refuse an immediate answer. Sometimes, too, a presentation is so technical that questions delayed may be questions forgotten at a later point.
Either procedure - taking questions during or after the presentation - will work, provided you have given forethought to your chosen method.
Tip #2: Never Announce a Certain Amount of Time or a Specific Number of Questions
To do so limits your flexibility and creates dangers along the way. If you announce that you will take questions for half an hour and you get only two questions, the audience walks away with the impression that you gave a disappointing presentation that did not generate the expected interest.
If you say that you will take another three questions and the third question is a hostile one, you may be forced to end on a negative note from which it will be difficult to recover.
Stay flexible simply by making a general statement that you will take a few questions before you wrap up. Then, if there are none or only a few, you are safe to go directly into your prepared close. And if you get a challenging question or if a negative issue surfaces, you can prolong the discussion until you can find an opportunity to bridge to a more positive closing note.
Tip #3: Set Boundaries During the Q&A
Set boundaries at the beginning of the session concerning the kinds of questions you will take and those best suited to respond to each. For example: "For security reasons, I'll ask you not to bring up the issues of X and Y." Or "We won't let ourselves get into Z because of the current litigation." Or "I prefer to deal with questions in the areas of A and B rather than C, which headquarters has requested be addressed to them by e-mail." Comments such as these issued at the beginning set the stage for your control of what follows. This practice is also effective for handling questions unrelated to your expertise or experience.
Tip #4: Remember That You Do Not Have to Answer Every Question
If you consider a particular question out of line, too personal or confidential, irrelevant, or of little interest to the rest of the group, you can deflect it, reroute it, challenge it, or simply defer to an expert. "I'm afraid that's outside my area of expertise; would someone else like to respond?" "Jason, I'm curious about why you're asking that question; didn't you and Casey work those issues out earlier?" "I understand why you're asking that question, but I think it would be more advantageous to focus on. . . ." and redirect the discussion.
Tip #5: Don't Let a Few Overzealous Participants Monopolize
As the presenter, you have responsibility to see that all audience members have full access to pose questions and that no one controls the show and "shuts down" - or creates an atmosphere that discourages - others. Even a remark about a pressing deadline or redundancy can discourage the more timid participants.
Tactful wording is typically your best tool: "Juanita, can you hold that next question? Let's take one from Omar first." Or "I regret that we do not have time for any more of your questions and comments - which, by the way, I found very perceptive and insightful. But we do need to wrap this discussion up. I'll be around for a few more minutes and then back in my office all afternoon if anybody wants to follow up one on one."
Tip #6: Answer to Reinforce Your Points
Responses such as, "I'm glad you brought up that issue because it gives me a chance to elaborate on . . . ," are a way to align listeners' questions with points you really want to emphasize. You also can respond in a way that broadens or narrows the scope of a question's focus. "The issue that most of the industry will be concerned with is X; therefore, let me answer in this broader context." Or "Yes, that's the big-picture problem, but let me bring it a little closer to home with the more specific issue of Y." So go in either direction to reinforce your viewpoint or message.
Tip #7: Take Care Not to Respond with More than They Want to Know
Maybe most important of all: When you field a question, be brief. If you take 10 minutes to answer the first few questions, some participants may fear antagonizing less interested audience members by asking one that could lengthen your presentation by another half hour.
Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a communication training firm offering workshops in oral presentations and technical writing, and an author of 40 books. Tips excerpted from Speak with Confidence: Powerful Presentations That Inform, Inspire, and Persuade (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Contact Booher Consultants by telephone 817-868-1200, by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.booher.com .
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