You finish your presentation and the audience is smiling, applauding. You nod, mouth the words “thank you” and take a little bow. In this moment, you could leap buildings in a single bound. You’re a rock star. Invincible.
As the applause tapers off, you see it. A hand.
An eager waving hand.
A hand with a question.
And in that moment, you wish for a sudden, inexplicable illness that requires immediate hospitalization.
Q & A sessions can strike fear into the hearts of even the most accomplished presenters. It’s the unknown, the uncertainty, the fear of being forced to answer questions on the spot without time to think – and the fear of looking foolish, like you you don’t know what you’re talking about after all. It’s a vulnerable place to be, standing there, waiting for the questions to come your way.
The good news is that most questions that come up in a Q & A session can be anticipated and addressed through a well-researched, thoughtfully designed and well-delivered presentation.
Do Your Research
You must know who your audience is and what they really want. What are their fears, aspirations and biases – about you, your subject matter and even your organization? You have to do your research before you even start developing your presentation.
If you don’t have direct access to the people in your audience before your presentation, talk to people in your network who are like those you will be presenting to, or to people who know and relate to your audience.
If you discover that your audience has a very strong bias for or against a particular point of view or solution, address this in your presentation and you’ll be much less likely to get a tough question about it. You can only do this well if you learn as much as you can about them before you step on stage.
Anticipate – and Preemptively Address – Their Questions
The primary source of tough questions usually falls into one or more of the following categories:
- Relevance. If what you’re saying isn’t relevant to your audience, they’re going to ask questions that will help them figure out how and why what you’re saying is important. You can only be relevant if you do your research and figure out what they want and need.
- Clarity. Even if you do a brilliant job making your content relevant to your audience, if you’re not making your point in a clear, easy-to-understand way, you’re going to get questions.
- Compelling. So, you’ve done your research and you’re a master of clear, concise point-making and you’re still getting questions. Why? It could be that you’re not very compelling. If you support your ideas, claims or concepts with compelling proof – examples, stories or demonstrations – the “I’m bored and trying to believe you” questions will taper off.
- Conviction. You may well be saying all of the right things, providing compelling evidence and telling powerful stories. But you might not be saying it in a way that makes the audience believe that you’re the expert, that you really know what you’re talking about. So, they will test you with tough questions. Ditch the qualifiers, extend your eye contact and speak with conviction and you will win over the doubters.
- Change. If what you’re talking about challenges the status quo and what you’re advocating requires change, people will resist. It’s human nature – we naturally resist change. So, you may have audience members who attack your point of view through challenging questions. It’s difficult to avoid this entirely, but understanding your audience and anticipating and addressing their objections in your presentation will dramatically reduce the “I hate change and therefore you” questions you receive.
- Ego. Yep, good old-fashioned ego. Sometimes when a person puts up their hand, they want the room to know that they are the expert. It’s incredibly useful to acknowledge other experts in the room when you begin your talk. Give them a shout out and acknowledge their expertise preemptively.
You Can Do It
It is possible to design and deliver a presentation to make the Q &A that follows a breeze. When you research your audience’s needs and address their most pressing questions during your talk, you can spend the Q & A in a lively discussion about what your audience might do with your content and concepts – and not in a debate about whether or not you know what you’re talking about!
Tune in Next Week for Part 2
Next week, I’ll be sharing Part 2 in this series about Managing Q & A Anxiety and in it some thoughts on how to effectively ANSWER questions in the moment.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you feel about Q & A sessions? What techniques do you use to design the answer to your audience’s questions right into the content of your presentation? Share your tips, tricks and experience in the comments below.