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Engage your audience: The Q&A

In a previous post for SmartBrief, I introduced four simple steps for creating a powerhouse presentation. This post, the final in this series, will show you how to leave your audience with a lasting favorable impression by engaging them as active participants in the conversation.

You’ve just wrapped up your presentation, and you’re confident that you’ve conveyed your points clearly and persuasively. Now, it’s time for the question-and-answer discussion -- the Q&A.

If you’re like many speakers, you view Q&A in one of two ways:

  1. You dread it, worried about being caught off guard
  2. You breeze through it, thinking that the “real work” is behind you.

Wrong and wrong, and here’s why. Q&A is often the most valuable part of any presentation -- it invites dialogue, provides feedback and, when properly handled, allows you to conclude on an energetic and powerful note.

To take full advantage of its potential, let’s look at how to manage your Q&A session effectively.

Welcome Q&A whenever possible

Your audience wants to be engaged in the conversation, to connect with you and your knowledge, and the Q&A is their chance to do so. Q&A allows you to respond to your audience’s specific interests and concerns. It also provides immediate feedback on how your message was received, allowing you to clarify or redirect on the spot.

Finally, Q&A offers valuable insight to help you refine future presentations. If certain topics come up repeatedly, plan to cover them more extensively next time.

Promote Q&A to prime your audience

To encourage audience involvement, promote your Q&A before and during your presentation.

Say something like, “I’d like to thank our hosts for providing time at the end of the presentation for questions and answers, and I welcome your comments as well. Please jot down any thoughts so we can be sure to address them.”

If an agenda is distributed, make sure it mentions the Q&A so participants listen, knowing there is time to further explore the topic.

Start off strong

The transition between your speech and your Q&A should be smooth, as if it is simply the continuation of a conversation. After concluding your remarks, acknowledge any applause gratefully and modestly, pausing briefly before introducing the Q&A.

When you begin, be sure to invite comments as well as questions. Keep in mind that while some listeners have a question to ask, others may have a valuable comment to contribute. The simple gesture of asking for both will boost participation.

As you solicit the first question or comment, look expectantly at your audience and be prepared to wait a few moments for that first hand to go up. While you wait, maintain eye contact with a smile (or pleasant facial expression). If you drop your eyes for even a moment, it can be interpreted that you really don’t want anyone to participate in the Q&A.

Tip: Count to 10 silently while looking around the room; that’s usually enough time for people to gather their thoughts and work up the courage to speak.

Encourage a shy audience

What if no one has a question? Sometimes you just need to give it a few moments; eventually the nervous energy in the room should be enough to get someone to raise their hand. If not, you need to determine if there’s really no interest, or if people just need a nudge to get started.

Here are a few ways you can encourage participation and get the Q&A off and running:

  • Have a plant in the audience. If you suspect you'll have a shy audience, you can ask a colleague to start off the Q&A with a question prepared in advance
  • Provide a prompt. Based on your past experience or research about your audience, pose a question that you believe will be of interest to listeners
  • Take a poll. Ask the audience members to express their opinions or share experiences about an issue you addressed in your presentation

Keep the conversation going

To respond to as many questions or comments as possible, keep up the momentum by:

  • Recognizing questioners briskly to keep things moving
  • Setting up and using a “batting order” to establish who goes first, second, etc.
  • Encouraging comments as well as questions
  • Briefly repeating the question before answering
  • Retaining control and keeping an eye on the time

“Robust” is how participants should describe your Q&A after the fact.

End smartly with a closing statement

How many times have you attended a presentation that ends with: “Well, I guess we are out of time -- thanks for listening”? More often than not, speakers miss the chance to wrap up their Q&A with intention. Instead, they just let time expire.

It’s more effective to plan for and wrap up your Q&A in a way that brings closure and reinforces your core message. Come prepared with a closing statement that caps off your talk. It needn’t be long or elaborate -- 30 seconds is enough.

For example, you can focus on any of the following:

  • A theme that emerged during the Q&A discussion
  • 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.

Hopefully, you’re viewing Q&A in a new light now and see it as a vital opportunity to connect with your audience, human to human. Embrace Q&A with a curious mind, and in time, you’ll come to love this presentation capstone.

I am grateful for the opportunity to share my experience and insights with SmartBrief readers, and I hope that the six-part C.O.D.E. series has been valuable in elevating your all-important presentation skills. Catch up with this series and my other SmartBrief writing.

 

Stephanie Scotti coaches leaders and their teams for every type of presentation, from Fortune 500 CEO keynotes to TED Talks to multimillion-dollar pitches. Find her bestselling book “Talk on Water: Attaining the Mindset for Powerhouse Presentations” at Professionally Speaking Consulting.

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