If you dread the Question-and-Answer session at the end of your presentation, this post is for you. Not everyone does: many of my clients tell me they feel more comfortable during the interactive part because they can give straight answers without the pressure they associate with presenting. These people I encourage to take all that’s positive about engaging with the audience through answering their questions and infuse it into the presentation itself. For those who dislike the cut and thrust of being asked questions, let’s explore what’s good about it.
The most obvious plus point to questions is that the audience is involved. In everyday conversation, asking questions is how we show an interest in what someone is saying. It means we’re thinking about it and we want to know more. This is really no different in the context of a presentation: questions demonstrate that the audience has been listening and that you’ve stimulated them to consider different angles. Questions are a compliment.
Of course, when I say this, I’m talking about relevant questions. Irrelevant questions are distracting and annoying but there are steps you can take to prevent these – or at least to keep them to a minimum.
First of all, as I’ve said often on this blog, you’ve got to put yourself in the audience’s position when you’re preparing your talk. Burning issues cannot be ignored and it’s simply no good hoping anyone is going to pay attention to your presentation about next year’s growth forecast if they’re waiting to hear whether the company is relocating to a region 200 miles away. Neither will they be able to follow if they don’t understand your basic premise. As you’re planning what you’re going to say, think about who is in the audience, anticipate what questions they may have and address them without waiting to be asked.
Even when there is no elephant in the room and your talk is pitched at the right level, it’s useful to reflect on what questions the audience may be bringing with them. It may be that you’re not able to cover all the answers within the scope of presentation you’re giving, or it may be that you choose to give just an introduction to or overview of something people are going to want to find out more about. These are judgements you make as you’re preparing – but thinking about what questions might come up allows you to dig out, evaluate and rehearse focused answers, so you’re ready for whatever grilling awaits you.
Particularly if someone has interrupted during your presentation, rather than waiting till the end, you are not obliged to answer any question you feel may throw you off course or spoil the flow of your talk. If you’re going to be covering the point later, say so and carry on in the order you planned. If you’re not going to be covering the point, you still don’t have to address it right now. Politely request the person to ask you that again at the end and continue to deliver your presentation in the shape you prepared it.
The main reason questions can be more nerve-wracking than the prepared presentation is the element of the unknown. As mentioned above, you can reduce this drastically by giving serious thought to what questions might come up and by refining and rehearsing your answers. If, after all this, someone flings you a question you haven’t foreseen, stay grounded and do your best. If you really have no idea, make that clear straightaway and promise to get back to the person with an answer as soon as possible. As long as you then do this, you can ultimately make an even better impression on your questioner than you would have by simply trotting out a stock response at the time.
Just because you’re sharing the floor during questions, it doesn’t mean you’re any less in control than you were when you were presenting. Allowing your boss to derail your talk by endlessly interrupting with tangential enquiries is not serving anyone’s best interests. Embrace questions that add to the discussion (though deal with them in the way you deem most beneficial to the audience as a whole) and minimise questions that detract from it. The Q&A is an extension of your presentation and, although it’s less structured, the same principles apply: it’s your responsibility as the speaker to make it work, so don’t be afraid to fulfil that role.