How to navigate—and survive—your next Q&A

If you’re not sure what you want to say in a presentation, a question-and-answer session can seem like a great idea. That’s when you should resist it most strongly. Here’s why.

Why go to all the trouble of preparing a speech when you can just take questions?

The basic problem with a Q&A is that you’re letting other people set the agenda. You’re not in control. Of course, you can decide not to answer a question, but that can make it look like you’re hiding something or unprepared—or clueless. You’re stuck with whatever’s asked, and you’re forced to handle whatever comes out of left field.

Many executives believe they’re better off providing spontaneous answers to unscripted questions, but that format increases the likelihood that they’ll say things they shouldn’t. If journalists are present, there’s the risk of making the worst kind of news. Also, a presentation can be ruined if the last questioner says something like: “So, tell us about that corruption scandal.”

Even when the questions are good, and the executive is on message, spontaneous answers tend to be sloppy. It’s a situation ripe for rambling. Executives enjoy displaying expertise—oftentimes with long-winded results.

Ultimately, a Q&A is a crapshoot. However, there are deeper problems with the format:

  • It’s almost impossible to tell a coherent story through questions.
  • Getting information through the ear is a very inefficient way to get (and retain) information.
  • You give up the chance to tell a good story that your audience can remember.
  • Your audience gives up any hope of getting something substantive out of the talk.

People remember the last thing they hear, if they remember anything, so having Q&A at the end of a talk ensures that the most incoherent bit is what they’ll be struggling to remember.

You’re better off taking questions as they come up, or at least take them about three-quarters of the way through a talk, saving a stirring bit of concluding rhetoric for the end. That way, you’ll at least give the audience something reasonable to remember.

If a Q&A session is unavoidable, here are three tips to help you minimize damage:

1. Prepare. Undergo a mock interview, and have your helpers ask you the most difficult questions you can think of. Get grilled relentlessly by someone who really knows your business, and the event itself will seem easy by comparison.

2. Practice spontaneous speaking. The way to give a coherent, off-the-cuff answer is to:

  • Think for a moment, then give a “headline” response
  • Give a few details or supporting arguments, then repeat the headline

If you train yourself to speak in this disciplined way, you are less likely to go off message, lost in the thickets of your own rhetorical excesses. Remember: State your headline, offer supporting points, and then restate your headline. That’s all.

3. Get recorded on camera for help with body language. The biggest giveaway is often not a word, but a defensive gesture. If you’ll be taking on difficult subjects, you must practice open, clear and frank nonverbal behavior. I’ve seen many speakers ruin a good answer with suddenly crossed arms or a scowl at the wrong moment.

Nick Morgan is CEO of Public Words. A version of this post first appeared on the Public Words blog.

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