How to run an awesome Q&A in your next presentation

You have a big presentation coming up, and you know there will be a question-and-answer portion following the speech. The organiser has even suggested that there will be a roving microphone and you may have to answer questions throughout your presentation. The unpredictability of this situation can make even the best speakers nervous. None of us wants to look or feel unprepared.

I asked a sample of 800 of my clients what they cringe about most in a Q&A and they all replied with the same three things:

  1. Answers a different question, not the one that was asked.
  2. Stumbles and blushes and doesn’t handle the question well at all, looks nervous and uncomfortable.
  3. Confusing overload of too much information that leaves the audience bamboozled!

It can be very nerve-wracking for the presenter and can be painful for the audience when the Q&A doesn’t go well.

Why do we give the audience the chance to ask questions?

The purpose of a Q&A is to:

Transform the presentation into a two-way, dynamic experience. You want your audience to be engaged, to feel they are ‘on notice’ and might be called upon for their opinions and ideas, and to feel they are an important part of the speech, not separate to it. 

Create an exchange of ideas and views. Traditional public speaking involves just the speaker speaking, the audience is expected to sit quietly and just listen. If they object they keep it to themselves. If they have good ideas or examples to enhance the learning they are asked not to share them. It is simply not cool to present in this way – ever. Audience members want to be involved, they want to contribute to the body of knowledge, they want their opinions known and (sometimes) even tested.

It’s a fact that a Q&A run brilliantly can actually be the best part of a really good presentation because it’s where the audience can interact and get involved. It’s also highly likely that the interactive sections of your presentation will be the part of the speech that are best remembered.

There are a few things to remember before you go into the Q&A.

Prior preparation prevents poor performance. Yes you know the saying. It’s just so important to prepare for your Q&A. When I’m coaching execs we brainstorm all the possible questions that the audience might ask. Then we work out the best and fastest answers to those questions. We also work out the questions we won’t answer and what to say if they are raised.

Panels practice sessions pay dividends. Most of my clients put panels together that include an expert from Sales, Marketing, Operations and General Management. Sometimes I attend too. The purpose of the panel is to practice both the presentation and the Q&A in front of these experts and receive feedback. In my experience, allowing the panel experts to be very tough and ask really difficult questions is a wonderful way to overcome any fear you might have about going into a Q&A.

How do you ask for questions from the audience?

In a poorly run Q&A people can ask whatever they like, and maybe de-rail your presentation with comments or questions that have nothing to do with what you’re talking about. It’s largely unpredictable – or is it? I suggest you use a formula like this to frame the type of questions that are both acceptable and unacceptable.

“I’m interested in your questions. For example you may have a question about … or … or maybe even …. Who would like to start?”

This formula will remove as much of the scary, unpredictable nature of Q&A.

What are the steps for answering questions effectively in a speech?

There are four steps you should use to answer questions. The point is that you want to ensure you maintain rapport with everyone in the group throughout the Q&A.

1. Acknowledge the question asker. This step is often called “giving status”. It is important to make the question-asker feel important by giving them compliments for the question they asked.

Say lines like: “That’s an Important question Jane, and the reason it’s important is because….“ Giving status to an audience member causes a positive feeling in your audience and it makes the question sound interesting. This will help the entire audience focus on your answer and it encourages further questions because it demonstrates that you will reward questions.

2. Paraphrase. When paraphrasing, you repeat the question in your own words, so that those who didn’t hear the question will understand the context of it. When paraphrasing, look at everyone and make sure that your body language demonstrates that you want the entire audience to feel included.

3. Answer. When giving answers, remember that ‘less is more’. Answer the question in an organised and structured way and don’t beat around the bush. Short answers are easier to understand and will help you stick to the point.

4. Check. Confirm that the ‘asker’ is happy with your answer. You could say lines like, “How does that sound Jane?”. This will encourage the question asker to either acknowledge that he or she is satisfied with your answer or provide a follow-up question.

What should you do if you don’t know the answer to a question in the Q&A session in your meetings or presentations?

No one wants to look silly when you can’t answer a question. Here are few golden suggestions so you maintain your reputation:

Don’t fake it! In other words, don’t make something up in the hope it will be good enough. Your audience is smart and you will break rapport and lose them if they think you are lying to them.

Buy some time. You could buy some time with Satir’s ‘Computer’ posture (also known by some as the ‘thinker’). This is where you place one arm across your body with the other elbow resting on your hand and your hand against your face (like you are thinking). This slows down proceedings and gives you time to think about what to do next.

Take some action. People don’t expect you to know everything. They do expect you to know where to go to find out what you don’t yet know. I suggest you say something like this: “the person who is the expert on that question is (insert name). I’m going to talk with them for you and we will get back to you by the close of business tomorrow.”

Throw it out to the audience. Most people love interactive presentations more than boring, static ones. Why not throw the question out to the group and say something like, “I know some of you are experts in this area, what do you think” or, “(insert name) is an expert in this matter. (name), I’d love to hear what you think might be the answer to (name’s) question.” Then be sure to repeat the question for the expert because they may not have been listening and you don’t want to embarrass them by putting them on the spot.

Closing your presentation with a sizzle

Once the Q&A is over, what then? How do you close? I’m sure you’ve seen a presenter finishing by saying ‘thanks’ or ‘that’s it!’ Or they just stare at you hoping you work it out that that’s the end. Or oh dear, they put up a slide that says, ‘the end!” Oh dear! Finishing your presentation like this will leave everyone feeling flat instead of excited about your pitch or ideas.

A better way to finish is with a closing statement. Your closing statement is the final sentence of your presentation. It’s the last thing you say, so it’s the final thing your audience hears and for that reason, is sometimes the main thing they remember from your presentation. Closing statements have a number of characteristics. Let’s go through them here:

Short and punchy. They ‘sell the sizzle’ of your message! They are exciting and motivational and are a bit like a slogan or a bumper sticker.

A signal that the presentation has come to an end. Closing statements have a bit of oomph about them and they give the audience a positive kinesthetic experience. They link to your opening and remind your audience of something you have already said. In this way they help your audience realise that you are at the end of your speech and they should probably applaud you!

Not a call to action. As a rule you should not ask your audience to do anything in your closing statement. You don’t want to come across as pushy. So don’t say, “Let’s all improve our sales this week!” Instead say something like this, “Spinify is the way of the future!”

You can see that a well run Q&A can actually be the best part of a presentation because it’s where the audience can interact and get involved, there’s a sharing of ideas and opinions and you increase the energy in the room. It’s also where you can demonstrate your mastery in facilitation that enhances your expert vibe. Do make a plan to put some effort and planning into the next Q&A and you’ll reap some exciting rewards! Happy Presenting!

About the Author:

Michelle Bowden is Australia’s authority on presentation & persuasion in business. Michelle is a CSP (the highest designation for speakers in the world), co-creator of the PRSI (a world-first psychometric indicator that tests your persuasiveness at work), best selling internationally published author (Wiley), and a regular commentator in print, radio and online media. Sign up for Michelle’s FREE How to Present magazine TODAY

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