The best-kept secrets about Q&A

How do you feel about question-and-answer sessions? Love it? Hate it? One way or another, I find that most people have strong feelings about this form of engagement.

If you love Q&A, it may be because you appreciate the chance to clarify your message and connect with your audience. Alternatively, if you hate it, you might feel concerned about being challenged or anxious about finding the right words. The key to conquering Q&A is all in your mindset.

The truth is that the Q&A period following a presentation or meeting is a good opportunity to elaborate on something you said and connect with the audience in a deeper way. When you go into Q&A with the mindset of having a conversation and approach it with a feeling of curiosity, rather than challenge, Q&A will be the perfect capstone.

Here are some of the best-kept secrets others won’t tell you about how to nail Q&A:

Secret No. 1: Maintain eye contact

At any point when you want to invite participation, eye contact is important. This is especially true during Q&A. Even dropping your eyes for a nanosecond signals doubt and a lack of genuine interest. Because it takes courage to ask an expert a question (yes, you’re the expert in the room), your audience will look to you for direction. You can do this by maintaining steady eye contact.

Secret No. 2: Encourage a shy audience

What do you do if no one seems to have a question? Often, you simply need to give it more time, so don’t be afraid to embrace a few seconds of silence. Remember that your audience needs time to process what they’ve heard and to formulate their question or comment.

Pro tip: Try counting silently to 10. By the time you get to 10, chances are good someone will raise their hand.

If your audience is feeling especially shy, here are some tips to kickstart Q&A:

  • Have a plant in the audience. If you suspect ahead of time that your audience will be quiet, you can ask a colleague to prepare a question in advance.
  • Bring up a question you often hear. Based on your experience with other audiences, research about your listeners or work with clients, you can bring up a common question you suspect your listeners might have on the “tip of their tongues.”
  • Take a poll. You can put a quiet audience at ease by asking participants to express their opinions by raising their hands as a group or sharing experiences related to your topic.

Secret No. 3: Invite comments

Having a captive audience and a bit of unstructured time to talk is a luxury. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to engage with your listeners and exchange ideas. Oftentimes comments from participants will yield anecdotes or stories that can help you illustrate your message. So, at the start of Q&A, ask for comments as well as questions.

Secret No. 4: Recognize people by name or another identifying trait whenever possible

If you know the name of someone who has raised their hand, say something like “Celia, your question or comment, please,” or if not, “let’s hear from the gentleman in the front row with the purple tie.” This is an easy gesture that helps you connect human to human and elevates your appearance as a professional in the minds of your audience.

In certain speaking situations, e.g., speaking in front of a large audience in an auditorium, there may be a microphone positioned in the center aisle and listeners have to leave their seats to speak into the microphone. Even in these circumstances, if you know the person, feel free to address them by name.

Secret No. 5: Set up a “batting order”

Controlling the dynamics of a room is perhaps the biggest challenge during Q&A. Especially if you’re speaking on an emotionally charged topic, it’s vital to set up a “batting order.” Not only do you want to avoid inadvertently missing someone’s question or recognizing someone before it’s “their turn,” once you set up a rhythm, the audience will know what to expect.

Start by saying something like, “Let’s start with the woman at the end of the third row, then we’ll go to the back to hear Jeff Smith’s question and comment.” After you respond to the first question, you can say, “Let’s move on to Jeff’s,” but first, tell the man leaning against the wall that he’s “on deck” (in case you’re not a baseball fan, that means “up next”). Continue this way until Q&A time is up.

Setting up a batting order puts your audience at ease and allows participants to put their hands down once they know where they are on the list. This also helps prevent you from spending too much time on one question. Alternatively, you could enlist the help of the emcee or a colleague to keep a running list and call on each audience member in order.

Secret No. 6: Avoid asking, “Did I answer your question?”

It can seem like a good idea to check-in with the person who asked you a question, but this can actually invite a long back-and-forth exchange that benefits one person at the expense of the rest of the audience. A better approach is to invite the person to talk one-on-one if you suspect a longer conversation is needed.

Secret No. 7: Keep an eye on the time

More often than not, speakers miss the chance to intentionally wrap up their Q&A. Instead, they just let time expire. How many times have you attended a presentation that ends with: “Well, I guess we’re out of time. Thanks for coming. Good night!”

It’s more effective to plan for and wrap up your Q&A in a way that brings closure and reinforces your core message. So, come prepared with a closing statement that caps off your talk. It shouldn’t be long or elaborate -- 30 seconds is enough. For example, you can focus on any of the following:

  • A theme that emerged during Q&A tied back to your core message.
  • A summary of your core message.
  • A call to action that inspires your listeners to respond by doing something.

Think of your closing statement as the knockout punch during a boxing match. It drives home your message and creates the desired impact on your audience. If you manage your time well, you can manage your audience’s expectations and leave them with a memorable takeaway.

Start by keeping an eye on time and keeping your audience appropriately informed. As you kick off Q&A, tell them how much time you have. When you get to the five-minute mark, say, “we have time for one or two more questions.” Always make sure you end on time and leave enough room to have the last word.

If initially you would have admitted to hating Q&A, I hope these seven secrets will make you rethink this form of engagement. Q&A is a vital opportunity to connect with your audience, human to human. Embrace Q&A with a conversational and curious mind and in time, you’ll come to love this presentation capstone!

 

Stephanie Scotti is a strategic communication advisor specializing in high-stake presentations. She has 25-plus years experience of coaching experience and eight years teaching presentation skills for Duke University. She has provided presentation coaching to over 3,000 individuals in professional practices, Fortune 500 companies, high-level government officials and international business executives. Learn more at ProfessionallySpeaking.net and ProfessionallySpeakingBlog.com.

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