All too often, speakers don’t make the question and answer session (Q&A) a priority. It’s frequently treated as just another couple of minutes that you have to get through before you can sit down. This is a missed opportunity! When managed properly, the time invested in Q&A can help you connect with your listeners and make your message more memorable.
Try the following 8 tips for managing your Q&A and make it work to your advantage:
As we mentioned in last week’s article, many speakers miss out on valuable feedback from the audience by only asking for questions. Very often listeners can relate anecdotes or provide information that helps to drive your message home. At the start of your Q&A, be sure to specifically ask for comments as well as questions. (If you missed last week’s article, see Kicking Off Your Q&A for more information about getting started).
Recognize people by name or location in the audience whenever possible.
Instead of merely pointing to someone who has her hand raised, say something like, “Celia, what’s your question?” or, “let’s hear from the gentleman up front with the green tie.” This simple gesture easily identifies individuals and keeps things moving. In some situations, there may be a microphone positioned in the center aisle and listeners leave their seats and go to the microphone to speak. Even in these circumstances, if you recognize the person, feel free to use their name or even ask them to introduce themselves.
Set up a batting order.
If you’re speaking on an emotionally-charged topic or one that the audience has considerable energy around, it’s vitally important to take control of the dynamics in the room. During your Q&A, setting up a batting order can be an easy way to do that. In case you’re not a baseball fan, a batting order is simply a line of players waiting their turn at the plate. You can do the same with your listeners waiting to ask a question.
Say something like, “Let’s start with the gentleman in the 5th row, then let’s come up front and hear Mary Shuttle’s question or comment and then over to the far right, the man leaning against the wall.” Now you’ve established a rhythm, everyone knows what to expect, and people don’t have to sit there with their hands in the air. What’s more, using a batting order helps prevent you from spending too much time on one question by providing an easy way to shift the focus and move on. Once you’ve answered the first question, simply say: “Let’s move on to Mary’s question.”
Do a listening check.
If you don’t understand a question or comment, or if you are concerned that audience members may not fully understand, ask for clarification. The best way to do this is what I call a listening check. In your own words, repeat back what you understood the question to be, and ask the listener to verify if you got it right. If not, he or she can further explain his question or point. This simple step prevents misunderstandings and helps you respond smartly.
Keep responses short and sweet.
Listeners don’t expect you to go into a long, drawn out discourse. Answer questions as succinctly as possible – try to keep your response to no more than 45 seconds – so that more listeners can participate. I think about Q&A like a networking event: my goal is to connect with as many people as possible. If you spend too much time with one person, you may miss out on meeting three others. Keeping responses concise allows you to answer as many questions as you can in the time allotted.
Avoid asking, “Did I answer your question?”
Particularly in a heated discussion, this can fuel the fire and keep you trapped in a one-on-one conversation. Trust that you did and move on. This keeps the rhythm going and helps you control the room. Listeners can always raise their hand again if they have additional questions to ask or comments to make.
Handle a potential embarrassment with grace.
Have you ever raised your hand to ask a question or make a comment, and by the time you were called on, you forgot what you were going to say or your question was already answered? There is a way to minimize that potentially embarrassing situation and help you as the speaker as well as your audience. The important thing is never to belittle anyone. If the listener has forgotten her question, simply say: “We’ll come back to you in a moment.” If the audience member indicates that his question was answered, smile and say: “Great, then you’re good! Let’s hear from Sally in the 3rd row…”
You don’t have to be omniscient.
If you don’t know the answer to someone’s question, say so. If possible, it’s a nice gesture to promise to get the answer within a reasonable period of time. Simply ask the listener to jot down the question on her business card and hand it to you after your presentation concludes. Doing this allows you to serve your listener without the distraction of asking for contact information. You can promise to respond within an appropriate timeframe, and be sure to honor that commitment.
As the presenter, your role in a Q&A is like the director on a movie set or a head chef in a commercial kitchen. It’s your responsibility to set the tone, facilitate the flow of the action, and make sure the results meet everyone’s expectations. If you do your job well, your audience can more easily grasp and relate to your message.
Hungry for more? Watch for next week’s post and learn how to close your Q&A with confidence!