The Q&A of a presentation often stokes fear in seasoned public speakers. Of all possible presentation elements—opening, stories, demonstrations, closing—the Q&A has the tendency to make even well-versed speakers lose control and fall flat.
As it’s usually near the end of the presentation, a poorly handled Q&A session leaves the audience with a negative impression of the presenter’s message. Don’t let this happen to you.
One common problem that causes many presenters to dread the Q&A is the fear of unknown questions. This fear, like most, is unfounded: The presenter ultimately controls the situation. The audience can ask any question, but the presenter chooses how to respond.
Your answers should be brief and direct. Your responses should not be mini-presentations. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger would begin his press conferences: “Does anyone have any questions for my answers?” As Dr. Kissinger’s quote suggests, be prepared with your answers in advance of their questions.
Here are five tips that will let you assume—and maintain—control of your next Q&A session.
1. Don’t end your presentation with Q&A. Although most presentations end with the Q&A, savvy speakers don’t. Ending with Q&A might mean having to respond to a question that drags you on a tangent away from your main message. The better strategy is to follow your Q&A session with a short closing that recaps your main message points. Regardless of the last question asked, ending the Q&A with a brief recap will redirect attention back to you. This means that the last impression will be your message. You get the final word.
2. Know the top 10 questions of your audience. Regardless of your subject matter, your audience will ask only a small range of questions in relation to your information. To find these questions out in advance, meet attendees before your presentation and ask them their top concerns about your information. The same questions, numbering usually eight to 10, will come up again and again as you present to different audiences. Learn the standard questions to your presentation information.
3. Prepare 15 responses to the top 10 questions. Create a variety of ways to respond to your audience’s standard questions. This will give you flexibility in how you answer. As you learn your audience’s primary questions, prepare responses that are brief and direct. Practice your delivery, because how you answer a question is as important as what you say.
4. Repeat the question. Repeating the question ensures that everyone hears it. One technique of professional presenters is to restate the question to get to the core issue. This requires that you listen to the question, summarize it, and then verify that your restatement addresses the questioner’s central concern. This technique enables you to strip away the extraneous parts of a question and go right to the heart of the inquiry.
5. Acknowledge it when you don’t know the answer. At some point you’ll receive a question to which you don’t know the answer. It’s OK. Just don’t fake an answer. You’ll lose credibility if you evade the question or fake a response. First, acknowledge that you don’t have an answer. Second, promise the questioner a follow-up response at a later time. You could also address the question to the audience for an immediate answer. As long as you’ve done well with the rest of your presentation, asking for assistance from the audience will display your confidence to handle the situation.
Your Q&A, like the other elements of your presentation, should be well practiced. Familiarity with your subject and audience will give you opportunities to learn the “top 10” standard questions in advance and prepare the best responses.
Apply the above information, and fear not the raised hand. In a short time, like Kissinger, you’ll have the answers even before they know the questions.
Charles Greene III is a presentation magician, and blogs at CharlesGreene.com, where a version of this article first appeared.