When we prepared our presentation, practiced and became familiar with its content, the assumption could be that we are ready for the podium. Not so fast. There is still the exceptional task of preparing for a question and answer session – that moment towards the end of our presentation when we ask questions … and our hearts leap.
When well managed, a question and answer session serves several vital purposes: it emphasizes our understanding of the presentation topic; increases our position with the public; it allows for audience participation and creates the prospect of a grand finale for the presentation. And generally a good Q&A session is well managed and planned. For best results there are 5 main points to note before the event:
- To be prepared. Each point in our presentation could invite a question from the audience. To be prepared for this we have to work on all of our material. We need to imagine and write down the questions that may arise. These questions may require further explanation, clarification or opinion. And our opinion will be asked: it matters a lot. For each question we write down we should prepare a written answer. And finally, we should aim to become fully familiar with each of these question-and-answer pairs.
- Consider the audience. No matter how much you’ve thought about predicting the questions, your audience will think about something else. But that’s not a problem either. Our audience is likely to have a shared or known background. They can be members of the same trade association, work in the same area, live in the same state or work for the same employer. Our knowledge of their shared interests will go a long way in anticipating their questions: questions with a local angle, an industry point of view, or a trade association perspective.
- Note the news. Despite all our preparation, the news can still conspire against us. But that’s still not a problem. The night before the presentation, simply grab that copy of USA Today found in the hotel lobby. Scan headlines for current events and anything else that might be relevant to the presentation. We can go further by picking up a local newspaper or watching local TV news on the day we present. Sports, politics, business or even entertainment news could be a clue in a question area with our audience.
- Ask a question. That awkward moment between asking questions and the first question asked could define the success of our entire presentation. Anything other than public interest is difficult to manage. But there is a method we can use. First we need to be aware of the time. If we’re past the timeslot or if we can hear restaurateurs flocking for lunch, then we need to be brief. Second, we need to remember to outline how many questions we will ask ourselves or how long we have – a physical look at a watch works well at this juncture. And finally we have to take a pre-positioned question from the audience. This is not deceit and it is not sneaky. But it’s rare for an audience member to immediately come up with a thought-provoking and engaging question. Our pre-positioned question does the job. Once this is out of the way, other questions will naturally follow.
- Be brief. Our answers need to be short, concise and to the point. This is not the time to discuss a mass of arcane details. This can be saved for later. Our answers should be sent back to the questioner, with ample eye contact. If necessary, we may need to repeat the question for the benefit of the rest of the audience before giving an answer. It may be necessary if microphones are not available. Our answer is not a chance for a debate with the questioner. If our answer were to invite further questions from the same questioner, then we need to volunteer to address the issue later in the lobby – and then ask the next question. And, of course, the whole business must be handled with courtesy.
With time left for questions, now is the time to wrap up our presentation with the grand finale, our closing remarks. Some event planners try to ask questions at the end of a presentation, but the ending typically doesn’t do the speaker’s job justice. Resist them. Best practice appears to be a question and answer session followed by closing remarks from a speaker.
A successful Q&A session can be a rewarding experience for both the speaker and audience. Yes, there is a dependence on us in using imagination and resources in our preparation. And yes, we need to apply some phase management to prepare for the first question. Preparation and execution are everything. And when it’s followed by a resounding and inspiring conclusion, the importance of the question and answer session is evident.