How to Manage Question and Answer Sessions (Q&As) in Your Presentations
Allowing the audience to ask questions after a presentation is a popular way to finish, and it has many advantages. You get direct contact with your audience, and the chance to clear up any ambiguities. It’s a good way to show commitment to and interest in your audience and gives you the opportunity to really deepen participants’ knowledge of your subject.
However, Q&A sessions are not risk-free; they can get out of hand pretty quickly if you don’t manage them properly. Questions unrelated to the topic pop up, criticism of the presentation swells in volume, or someone wants to make a name for themself and hogs all the speaking time, leaving others frustrated. Good management of Q&A sessions involves excellent advance planning and a certain tact and sensitivity.
The following tips will help you get the most out of your Q&As.
Respond to Questions Positively
Always answer questions positively and with gratitude. Creating a good atmosphere in which no one is afraid to speak out is paramount. A simple “Thanks for your question” or “Thanks very much; you raise an interesting point” before you answer in detail helps to ensure this.
Repeat the Question
It is really important to repeat every question. Most of the time, there’s no microphone for the audience to use, so the only way to ensure that everyone has heard the question is for you to repeat it. Not only will all your audience then get something from the answer, but you will (hopefully!) prevent the same question being asked more than once.
Thoughtful Answers Need Thinking Time
It is important to give well thought-out and structured answers, even if you need a bit of thinking time. Resist the urge to respond immediately; take the time you need to give a clear answer. Audiences are more patient than you might think and will appreciate not being fobbed off with a shoddy or bungled answer.
Restate Irrelevant Questions
Chances are that at least one question in your Q&A will be nothing to do with the topic at hand. With a little practice, however, you can restate such questions to make them fit in the context and allow the answer to create added value for your audience. You need to work out which aspects of the question do fit the presentation and reword the question to focus on them.
Allowing random questions can sometimes be a challenge! Thinking about how to reshape any question to make it relevant does wonders for your self-confidence, though. With good preparation and a little practice, the benefits can outweigh the disadvantages and really liven up your Q&A sessions.
Prepare for Q&As Thoroughly
Before any Q&A it’s vital to have a good think about what questions might arise. Once you’ve finished creating your presentation, study it carefully with this in mind, noting any possible areas which could be questioned. This way, you can think of possible answers, meaning you’ll be far more secure in the Q&A. A trial run in front of a test audience can also be useful, especially if you encourage them to ask absolutely anything! If there are any questions you really don’t want asked, you can modify the content of the presentation to avoid them.
You will come across as particularly professional and well prepared if you’ve prepared a few extra slides containing additional information, graphics, etc, specifically for the Q&A session. The content for these flows naturally from imagining what you might possibly be asked.
Establish the Rules in Advance
Are you going to allow questions during your presentation or leave them until the end? Or both? Decide beforehand when questions will be allowed; this is totally up to you. Experienced speakers are usually not put off by questions during the presentation. Leaving questions until after the presentation, though, is just as legitimate, prevents interruptions and also facilitates time management. If you’re an inexperienced or nervous speaker, this is probably a better way to organize things.
Q&As vs. Discussion
When planning your presentation, you need to think about how much discussion (as opposed to single questions and answers) you are comfortable with. Intense discussions can of course be interesting and enriching, but there’s a risk of them being dominated by a particular person or faction, leaving the rest of the audience irritated. You can head such situations off with sentences like “I think we should let someone else have a say now”, or offer to continue the discussion at a later date. It’s up to you.
React Calmly and Confidently to Aggressive Questions
There’s generally at least one troublemaker at every Q&A. They try to corner you with negative or aggressively formulated questions (often several at the same time). Often people who know the topic well, and can rebut your answers, their underlying intention is definitely to provoke. In such a situation you need to react confidently and not go on the defensive.
The trick is to remain calm and in control, and try to turn the conversation in a positive direction. Conceding that they have a point, or that you agree with certain of their reservations, creates perceived agreement; this can defuse the aggression.
Another bugbear is questions which were already answered comprehensively in your presentation, so it’s obvious that the questioner wasn’t actually listening. In this situation, try to avoid making them look foolish in public by such phrases as “As I’ve already explained …” – the best tactic is simply to answer the question in a calm and friendly manner.
How to Manage a Flurry of Questions
Some people will throw several questions at you at the same time. It’s almost impossible to keep them all in mind while answering. So the best tactic here is to choose an easy question and answer it thoroughly, allowing the questioner to follow up on it and the other topics to build organically into the discussion. Asking “So, you had another question?” will either elicit a repeat of an important question, so you can answer that with the attention it deserves, or, interestingly, you will have covered the ground in the preceding discussion, and the questioner will declare themselves satisfied.
You don’t have to have an immediate answer for every single question. Someone in the audience may have new information, or perhaps you don’t have the relevant figures to hand. Bluffing in such circumstances is a very weak response and can turn people against you. Honesty really is the best policy here: if you don’t know the answer, admit it!
If you want to answer but need to make assumptions to do so, you have to make it very clear that you’re proceeding on assumptions, and state what they are.
Either way, you can promise to contact the questioner with an answer later if that works for you.
Some questions can’t be answered; others mustn’t be answered. These might involve such things as internal company matters or data protection issues. An answer such as “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to say anything about that” might get your point across, but is a bit harsh and dismissive. It works far better to invoke your audience’s sympathy with something like “I’m sure you’ll understand that I can’t …”.
Sometimes Q&A sessions come to a close naturally, simply because the questions dry up. However, you can’t automatically assume this. Have a plan in place to prevent the Q&A dragging on forever. You can do this at the beginning by clearly specifying a certain number of questions or a particular time frame for questions. If you prefer to leave the Q&A more flexible, then have a few phrases prepared that will bring things elegantly to a close, for example, “We still have time for one last question”.
In an Emergency: Break the Silence at the End of Your Presentation!
Even if you’ve prepared thoroughly for questions after your presentation, nasty surprises happen. Like the time when your cheery “So, any questions?” is met with deafening silence. Most of the time, this has nothing to do with how well you presented, and a lot to do with the reluctance of the individual members of your audience to speak up. It might help to phrase your invitation to speak more gently, e.g. “I’d love to answer any questions you might have”.
You could also start the Q&A session with something like “What people often ask about this is …”. This often leads to follow-up questions and breaks the ice. Questions to the audience, such as “So what’s your experience of this topic?” can help. You could also prime a third party (maybe the moderator, if you have one) with a few initial questions, to warm the audience up.
Armed with this knowledge, and having prepared thoroughly, you’ll find that Q&A sessions can be not just survivable, but actually interesting and informative. New perspectives are suggested, new options appear. Your hard work has reaped rich rewards. Good luck!