Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Audience Interaction is Easier Than You Think - Part III Q&A

In Part I of this series, I talked about how to get Group Response. Part II covered Inter-Audience Interaction. Today I'll cover one of the biggest challenges a speaker faces - the dreaded Q&A - Questions & Answers.

Speeches that involve Q&A are more common than you might imagine. We all expect to see Q&A at a press conference or training seminar - but Q&A is getting more and more popular at all events, even keynote speeches. People are less and less satisfied with simply being spoken TO, they expect to be spoken WITH, and given the chance to question and respond. Even if you aren't allowing Q&A, it is likely going on right in plain sight, on a Twitter backchannel or through inter-audience texting.

Q&A scares a lot of speakers. It means giving someone else the spotlight. It risks someone in the audience going off-topic, or worse, sounding smarter on a topic than you do. It can put you in the position of answering uncomfortable questions. Done incorrectly, it can completely derail your presentation. Small wonder it's so intimidating. 

There are two basic ways Q&A will occur during your presentation - sporadically throughout your talk, and the more traditional approach - bunched together at the end of your speech. Going back to our theme in Parts I & II - YOU are in control. You decide when and how questions will be asked, and answered.

Traditional Approach

A. Don't Do It! That is, don't end your speech on Q&A. It can be a recipe for disaster. Your audience knows it can check out, and some of them will. Worse yet, the last question (or, in the case of some audiences, sarcastic statement couched as a question) in your time allotment might be so far in left field, or elicit enough crowd response, the participant effectively gets the last word and the lasting impression, instead of your message. 

B. Keep the End in Mind. Time the Q&A to take place earlier in the speech, allowing you 5 minutes or so to wrap up. This effectively returns the spotlight to your points and gives the audience the chance to refocus on the importance of your message in their minds. Re-affirm your points, and end on a strong story that illustrates the main point of the presentation. Your audience, and your meeting planner, will thank you.

C. Put the Audience in Queue. If you're lucky, or unlucky depending on your point of view, many hands will pop up. Pick out the first three you see (or the three you see from people you believe will offer helpful questions, based on your time with the audience to this point), and let them know you'll answer Bob's question first, then the lady in blue, then the guy in the back corner. This restores a bit of order. Before answering the last person's question, set the queue up again, if you believe you have time.

D. Last Question. Keep watch on your clock, and let the audience know when you're taking the last question. Letting them know right before your final answer will get them settled. Even if more hands go up, let them know you'll be available afterwards (if you are), and set up your close. Move right into your brief recap and final story.

Sporadic Approach

A. Permission & Instruction. Let them know you'll take questions during your talk, and let them know the procedure. Do you want them to fill out index cards and send them forward? Would you prefer they Tweet their question on the backchannel? Can they simply raise their hand? Letting them know what to do will head off those vocal audience members who might just interrupt you mid-sentence. 

B. Control the Flow. People have questions at the most awkward moments. Don't take a question just because someone is staring you down as they raise their hand higher and higher in the air. If you can, let them know you'll answer their question in a moment. If you are mid-sentence, give them an affirming glance - both the questioner and the audience will appreciate the acknowledgement and return attention to you as you complete your thought.  When using cards or Twitter or other non-person-to-person Q&A techniques, be sure to take time out at various intervals to answer them.

C. Last Question. As with the Traditional approach, let them know you're done taking questions when you reach the climax of your presentation. Tell them you'll answer more after the session, or take questions by e-mail for the next few days specifically for their group. This should satisfy them long enough for you to close with strength, and give the audience the lasting impression they need from you.

Regardless of the approach you take, Question Management is essential. 

A. Let the Questions Be Heard. Once the audience gets bigger than 10 or 15 people, it becomes difficult to hear questions. Use roving microphones (and roving assistants) to assure questions can be heard. Even in this case, take time to restate the question for the audience, to assure everyone is clear on the question when you answer.

B. Restate and Reframe. When you restate the question, consider reframing it at the same time. If someone asks you a question that could lead the discussion off-topic, restate, then reframe by saying "what I think I'm hearing is you want to know...." and lead it back into the presentation points.

C. Let Balls Go Foul. When a question is far out in left field, both you and the audience know it. Acknowledge the question, then defer to answering it at another time. Then suggest a question type - "Does anyone have a question on XYZ?" Only do this for questions that are way, way foul, or you risk looking like you are dodging questions. Done at the right time, however, it makes you shine as your audience shakes their head in collective dismissal of the oddball question. 

D. Call Time-Out. One of the biggest fears in Q&A is the 5 minute question without a question. Sometimes it's someone who simply can't be concise, sometimes it's someone with an agenda of their own, eager to grab the spotlight. Protect yourself and your audience from these people by having the strength to call Time-Out. Interrupt them - you control your time. If you think they have a question, try to state it for them, or give them an option of two questions you anticipate them leading to. They may actually be grateful you stopped them and clarified their thoughts. As for those who simply wish to drone on, interrupt and ask for the question, or suggest you continue the discussion one-on-one afterwards.

E. Use Self-Deprecating Humor. If a question is borderline out of bounds, or emotionally-loaded with tension and negativity, don't be afraid to use self-deprecation to bail out of the question. If the question makes you tense, it makes your audience tense. Humor will lighten the mood, get the audience on your side, and give you a chance to redirect the question, or simply move on to the next. 

F. Be Prepared. For any speech, you need to do your homework and know what's happening with the company or group you will be in front of. Anticipate questions and practice various answers - even practice the out of left field questions you dread. Ask the meeting planner what questions they would anticipate their audience might have. You'll never guess them all, but the more questions you're ready to handle, the easier it'll be when the surprise questions hit.

G. I Don't Know. It happens. Sometimes you won't have an answer. Be willing to say so, and your audience will appreciate your candor. Send them somewhere they can get the answer, or promise to follow up at a later time. Then move on.

There is no reason to fear Q&A once you begin implementing these techniques. The audience as a whole is usually on your side, and most of the time you carry all the answers you need right inside your brain.

Questions and Answers done well will create a stronger connection between you and your audience. They will trust you faster, and be more willing to utilize you for answers in the future, whether its by visiting your website, signing up for a newsletter, buying your product, or even booking you in the future. 

Embrace Q&A - it's a great way to Speak & Deliver!


  1. MY ISSUE with offering a Q&A-session is that I am so deliberate to present ALL THE DETAILS in my presentations that I leave no windows open for questions.
    How can I most effectively include these details without skimping on the details?

  2. Without knowing what you speak about, to what venue, etc., I'd be offering blind advice.

    Q&A isn't necessary for all speaking, and may not even be beneficial in many instances.



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