How to Handle Q&A and Stay in Charge
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For many speakers, the Q&A session that often follows a speech or presentation is what scares them the most about the whole experience. And it’s for good reason- it is not uncommon to watch a good presenter plunge and suddenly lose credibility when their discourse is interrupted. When an audience member puts up his or her hand, you can feel a heightened attention in the air. Will the reply increase the relevancy of the topic and connect with the audience- or will it do the opposite?
It’s important to remember here that questions are not disturbances taking you away from your discourse, although they can sometimes feel like it. An audience member who poses a question is a gift. S/he is noticing that something is missing to be able to keep the attention, and moreover, s/he is so interested that s/he is using muscle power and courage, interrupting your flow of words to make sure s/he can get back to understanding you or explore more of your topic.
Usually we speak about topics we know a lot about and in a favorable case, we are even passionate about it. Under these circumstances, it’s increasingly difficult to keep an awareness of how our stream of speech is being received on the other side. We’re speaking from inside our own bubble, often with nerves making it even more challenging to open our perception to feedback from the audience. A question is your chance to adjust and increase the relevancy of your topic.
As a speaker, you have a crucial choice when you receive a question: you can lose your ground and your potential to influence the people in the room, or you can win your audience over and use the Q&A session to demonstrate your leadership. Here’s how:
1. Repeat the question
There are two reasons for doing this: firstly, the rest of the audience haven’t probably heard the question clearly, and two, you also get to check whether you have understood the question correctly. There’s nothing more irritating than a speaker who misses out on the question and starts talking about something else.
2. Make eye contact
Start by making eye contact with the audience member who is asking. You will probably do this automatically; it is, after all, a reflex to look a person in the eyes when we are talking one to one. The moment you have picked up the question and confirmed that you have heard it correctly, take your gaze away from the person asking and bring your eyes back to look at the audience. Your answer is relevant for the whole audience, so you don’t want to turn your answer into a dialogue between just the person who is asking and yourself.
Then, when you have answered the question, you return to the person who asked it, and look him/her in the eyes again. Sometimes, a short gaze and a nod is enough to confirm that the question has been answered; other times, you might want to make sure by asking, “Did I answer your question?” If you choose to do this, you have to be ready, however, to deepen your answer and develop it further, so this is something you need to have in mind before you potentially ask.
Sometimes we are confronted with malevolent questions that have another purpose than actually deepening the understanding of your topic. It can be a question to demonstrate that they know more than the speaker, to provoke the speaker or, the most common case, a person raises his/her hand to simply hear his/her own voice- some people even try to take over the discourse under the pretense of posing a question.
If you are confronted with a malevolent question, take your eyes away from the person who is asking and interrupt him/her. This feels rather violent the first few times you try it, but really, you are only fulfilling your role as a presenter, which also includes being the leader in the room. By doing this, you are doing the audience a favor, making sure they are not taken as hostages while one audience member rambles on about something irrelevant.
Now, because you are in charge, you can do this with a smile, as you are the one they came to listen to. And you can easily get back on track, smooth it out and continue your discourse in a friendly way. The trick is to not return your gaze to the person who posed the question. If you do, this nonverbal signal means that the person can continue their word flow, and believe me, s/he will! When you manage this, you have saved yourself and your audience from being hijacked, and if you open your senses, you will feel waves of gratitude from your audience, and your credibility and leadership has been strengthened as well.
3. Stay on topic
When you receive a question, don’t create a new discourse. An effective presenter knows how to answer a question in a brief way. The audience cannot remember the question that was asked for a very long time and everyone is waiting for the answer. If the question inspires you to launch into a new topic, make sure you answer the question as good as possible in a brief way and then introduce the new topic, so that the audience can follow your thread of thoughts and knows where you are going.
4. Answer right away
In some situations, we have limited time for speaking, and a format that has a designated timeslot for Q&A at the end. If this is not the case, the best thing you can do is to pick up the questions immediately. When one hand is in the air, that person is representing several other audience members in the room- the others just didn’t bother to put their hand up. You are risking talking to a room full of wandering minds, and ignoring them, you are missing out on an opportunity to deepen your audience connection.
5. Be honest
If you don’t know the answer to the question, just say so- don’t ever lie. There are many elegant ways of doing it- you can politely say that you’ll investigate this and return with the results, or you can refer to sources where the data can be found. The context you’re presenting in will tell you what kind of reply is adequate.
The first reason for sticking to the truth is the mere fact that your audience will not believe you if you don’t. Standing in front of the audience, a major part of your communication is non-verbal, consisting of facial expressions, tone of voice, stance and gestures. Already as young children, we learn to trust the way something is said and not the words themselves. When we speak, we are simultaneously sending out a myriad of nonverbal signals, revealing what we are feeling about the message of our words. Unless you are a professionally trained actor, these signals will give you away in the moment of any dishonesty.
Secondly, for an audience, the qualities of authenticity and integrity are at the very core when they evaluate the relevancy of a talk. Think of it from an audience perspective: when you are listening to someone, and you sense that the speaker is avoiding something or putting out false facts, are you interested in the rest of the talk?
It can be tricky, but if you handle it well, Q&A sessions can be the biggest boost ever up on the podium. As a rule of thumb, there’s always a possible audience connection in a question. And the effect of a successfully answered question is worth more than the amount of data you might have to sacrifice because of potential time loss. When you handle your Q&A well, in addition to the delivery of your content, you are demonstrating your leadership in action, leaving them hungry for more.