Q&A Tips for Speakers – How to Turn Terror into Triumph

Q&A Tips for Presenters

I have noticed that many speakers dread the traditional Presentation Question Time slot at the end of their presentation. When I ask them why this is, the most common reasons given are:

  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of being asked difficult questions
  • Fear of not knowing the right answers
  • Fear of making a fool of themselves
  • Fear of nobody asking any questions

The importance of presentation question time

I believe that audience questions are immensely valuable and that they benefit both the audience and the presenter.

Audience benefits

The Q&A gives your audience the opportunity to clarify anything about which they are uncertain. By posing questions, your listeners can check that they have understood you correctly and raise fears or misgivings.

Presenter benefits

It gives the presenter a chance to assess the audience’s level of understanding and “buy in”, correct any misunderstandings, clarify and expand on points that are of particular importance to the audience.

Q&A Tips - How to prepare 

Anticipate likely questions

It’s true that you can never anticipate every possible query, but you can make time to rehearse your responses to the most likely ones.  Adopting an ostrich mentality by burying your head in the sand is a sure-fire recipe for failure.

Grab a piece of paper and a pen and imagine yourself being in your audience's shoes. What would you want to know? What information would you need? What concerns or fears would you have? If possible, ask other people too.

Case Study

When I was a young marketing assistant with Esso Chemicals, I attended an international meeting. At it, I and each of my opposite numbers from across Europe had to give a five-minute progress report on the implementation of a new piece of software in our country.

When my German colleague came up to speak, we all noted that he had more slides than was normal, but he didn’t use many of them. Afterwards, we descended on him and asked: “Why all the slides?” Looking slightly puzzled, he responded: “In case anyone asks the questions!” He had tried to anticipate every possible question and had prepared a slide to answer each one if it came up!

Set out the ground rules for the Q&A

Choosing the most appropriate time to take questions can be critical to the success of your presentation.
In general, there are three opportunities to allow questions.  Make sure you select the most appropriate one for your situation, bearing in mind the pros and cons of each option.

  • Anytime during the presentation
  • At set intervals
  • At the end

The most appropriate option will depend on various factors including the time available, the number and nature of people in the audience and your confidence in your knowledge of the subject matter.

How to get more questions

It’s not always the presenter that is afraid of presentation question time. Audience members often feel reluctant to ask because:

  • They feel under pressure to come up with a “good” question
  • They are afraid that their question may be seen as “stupid” by the presenter or, worse still, their peers
  • They are too embarrassed to admit that they didn’t understand something the presenter said

These emotions lead to that uncomfortable tumbleweed moment when the presenter asks “are there any questions,” and gets silence in response. As the speaker, it’s your job to do everything you can to prevent this. Here are some tips that I use.

Encourage questions in your opening

During my introduction, I often include a few words designed to inspire my audience to seek clarification. I talk about their value, and I tell my audience that, in my book, there is no such thing as a stupid question. I also acknowledge how most people are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking stupid.

I explain that there nothing to fear. Asking questions is a sign of intelligence not ignorance. If you don't understand something, there will almost certainly be others in the room who don't understand either, but who are lacking the courage to admit it and to ask for clarification. When you ask a question, you are helping others as well as yourself.

Make the questioner feel good

Another great way to encourage more questions is to “big up” the first people to ask.

Using a phrase like “What a fabulous question” makes the person asking it feel validated and allows you to demonstrate that you genuinely welcome questions.

Q&A Tips - Summary 

  • Tell the audience when they can ask questions
  • Don’t allow interruptions to dominate the presentation
  • Expect to be challenged and prepare answers in advance
  • Listen carefully to the enquiry and give yourself time to compose your response before replying
  • If necessary, repeat the question to make sure everyone in the audience has heard it, before responding
  • When you do answer, make sure that your reply takes in the group, but make deliberate eye contact with the questioner, and check back with them at the end
  • Aim to give affirmative answers or, when that's not possible, follow-up a negative response with a positive alternative. E.g. “That’s right it doesn’t do that; however, it can do ...”
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t guess or waffle. Either ask for help from another member of the team or make a note to get an answer to the questioner afterwards

Want more tips like these?

I recently updated and expanded my book The Presenter's Edge. It's packed full of practical tips to help you develop, design and deliver amazing presentations with confidence.  Available now in paperback and Kindle formats via Amazon.

The Presenter's Edge

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