Effective public speakers should put as much energy and attention into managing audience Q&A as they do their presentation.
The planning begins with a fundamental question: Are you going to conduct an audience Q&A?
Of course, you don’t have to take any questions. Not every presentation calls for them—such as a large keynote address. An audience Q&A introduces unpredictability, which can be an unnerving situation even for experienced speakers.
Still, the audience Q&A session can provide some of the more memorable and energetic moments of your presentation. If you manage your audience Q&A deftly and with care, you potentially gain valuable information:
- Did your messages stick?
- Is your audience concerned about or resistant to your ideas?
- Are they confused?
- Do they need to know more?
Managing your audience Q&A is all about preparation.
Here are some tips for taking questions during your presentations, as well as guidance on how best to respond:
When to take questions
Early in your presentation, let the audience know how and when you plan to take questions. Here are a few ways to seek out those queries:
In a trickle: Before you begin, let your audience know the floor is open. This audience-friendly approach works well for more informal formats, training seminars or business presentations. If the questions start to crowd out your main points, say you’ll put some off until the end. Make sure, however, you remember to revisit them.
In chunks: After each main point, or section of your talk, ask for questions. This is a great way to engineer a midcourse correction if you discover your main points are failing to land. Don’t stress out if no questions materialize; you can always ask for questions before your closing.
At the end: This option works well with larger audiences or when you are building a sequential or persuasive case with a conclusion or recommendation. You can announce the amount of time available for the question period and give the audience a sense of when you are wrapping it up. For example, “We have time for two more questions.”
How to conduct the Q&A
After establishing when you’re taking questions, let your audience know how they should ask them. You can ask for:
The audience to jump in, which works best with small groups or during more informal presentations.
A show of hands, which is terrific for larger crowds or more “formal” talks.
Written questions. This approach can be effective during larger panel discussions, when an audience is tuning in remotely to your speech—or when the audience already has good sense of your topic.
Written questions also work well for employee town halls. These queries can be delivered on paper, or you can use digital tools (such as Slido) that enable audience members to pose questions.
How to interact with your audience
One way to make the process less nerve-wracking is to make a list of questions that are likely to be asked.
Of course, you can’t plan for everything. Here are some tips for better managing your role in the exchange:
Draw out your audience.
If you ask for questions and are met with silence, don’t panic. Here’s how to get the ball rolling:
- Sometimes, the pause is enough to prompt someone to fill the void. Make sure, however, to span the silence confidently and maintain your gaze with the audience.
- Ask a question of your own. This might work: “I just finished outlining the subjects we plan to cover in the program. How do you think those skills will help you to get the job you want and the money you want to make?”
Strive to listen.
As you listen, try to identify the questioner’s main point. If you begin to formulate your answer too quickly, you might not pick up on a larger issue.
Take time to understand.
You may encounter a questioner who is difficult to understand or who asks a vague question. Here’s how to get back on track:
- Ask for clarification—something along the lines of, “I’d like to make sure I understand. Would you please say a bit more?”
- Give a brief answer, and ask if the questioner is willing to stick around until after the talk has ended to continue the conversation.
- Don’t answer until you understand. For example, “Let me restate your question to make sure I’m on the right track. Are you asking me what jobs the program prepares you for?”
Answer with intention.
Your answers will vary, but you should:
- Be brief. Generally, keep your answers to less than a minute, and avoid wandering into topics that stray from your main points.
- Be honest. You may not know the answer, and that’s OK. You can always ask for clarification—or use the audience as a resource: “The question you ask is a good one. Perhaps there is someone in the audience who has experienced the same challenge and would be willing to share what they have learned?” Finally, offer to find out an answer and get back to them. Then, follow up as promised.
- Be human. If a highly charged, emotional question comes your way, responding with the correct information is only half of the story. Your response must also account for the audience’s emotional concerns. People in your audience need to feel that you “get it.”
In addition to your spoken message, the audience will pay attention to your body language. Here are some tips on effective body language:
- Give audience members your complete focus, and make sure you face them.
- Stay away from the lectern and roam the room. You don’t have to wander the aisles like a talk show host, but just a few steps closer to the audience helps build a connection.
- When calling on people who raise a hand, use an open palm to avoid pointing at them—which can be construed as a rude, accusatory or even aggressive behavior.
Unless you want to promote a critic to co-presenter, avoid trading barbs with an audience member who’s itching for a debate. Remember, your job is to manage your audience Q&A.
Still, you should address the occasional tough question. Here are a few ways to handle difficult questions without getting into an argument:
Turn away. As you finish answering the questioner, turn your gaze and body toward a different part of the room, and ask what other questions you can answer.
Redirect. If the questioner remains fixed on a topic, suggest that you will answer them at the next break or after the session. Most audiences will appreciate that you tried to answer the question—and that you freed up the floor for additional queries.
Turn to the audience. If you’re unsure how much others are concerned by the topic the questioner raised, you might ask your audience if they want to spend more time on the subject by calling for a show of hands. If many go up, you know the questioner is on to something. If hands stay down, then move on gracefully.
Wrapping it up
The way you prepare for and manage your audience Q&A can make (or break) your overall presentation. Be sure to finish strong—preferably with some sort of call to action or brief recap of the key points you hoped to convey.
Make your audience feel heard, and show genuine appreciation for their attention and participation. Above all: Keep your cool. Err on the side of having grace and patience with your audience’s questions, and don’t let heated emotions derail your message. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but preparation will give you a huge head start.
Christina Hennessy is the chief content officer for Throughline Group, which offers public speaking and media training open-enrollment classes and custom workshops. This post originally appeared on the Throughline Group blog.