You breezed through your presentation without a hitch and now you want to open the floor to audience questions. But wait! Are you prepared? Do you know how to effectively lead a Question-and-Answer session? Are you skilled at speaking extemporaneously? Can you maintain control, should someone try to monopolize the floor or become otherwise disruptive?
While the Q & A session may seem like nothing more than an afterthought - a courtesy to the audience - the fact is, it can make or break your presentation. It's during the Q & A that a speaker reveals his leadership abilities, his true personality and his knowledge of the subject. This is when he earns or loses credibility with his audience. While some speakers shine their brightest when responding to random questions, others are uncomfortable with this sort of casual interaction.
I know an author who won't answer questions during his book promotion presentations. He purposely runs his speeches a little long so there won't be time for questions, and he leaves when the talk is over. He says, "People don't come to hear what other audience members have to say. They come to hear me. And if I respond to all of their questions, there will be no reason for them to buy my books."
I know speakers who dislike the lack of structure inherent in the typical Q & A. One friend says, for example, "There's no way to plan for audience participation because there are too many variables and surprises." Yes, there are variables and surprises, but speakers can prepare for the unexpected by honing their leadership skills.
If you're a speaker who typically relies on the Q & A session, but you aren't sure you're as effective as you could be, or if you're uncomfortable opening the floor to questions, the following will help:
First, understand that questions are a compliment to you and your presentation. Interesting thoughts evoke questions. Personable presenters draw questions. What audience member is going to ask a boring speaker to say something more on a dull topic?
When you open the floor to questions and a hand goes up, this means you've probably opened a mind, touched a heart and/or hit a nerve.
• ALWAYS repeat the question so everyone can hear it. A typical audience member will not speak loudly enough for the rest of the audience to hear the question.
• Make sure you understand the question. Another reason for repeating the question is to make it clear to you. Repeat it and elicit a nod of affirmation from the individual who posed it. Say, for example, "If I understand the question, you're asking how to locate someone to help you design a Web page."
• Speak to the whole room. If you're responding to a question asked by someone in the second row, speak so you can also be heard in the back of the room. I've seen speakers look at that person in the second row and speak directly to him or her in a tone virtually inaudible to the rest of the audience. You can address the person in the second row while answering his question, but do elevate your voice so you can be heard throughout the room.
• Keep things moving. One way to lose your audience during the Q & A session is to spend too much time addressing the personal concerns of one or two individuals.
What if you open the floor to questions and no one raises a hand? Try jump-starting the questions. Here are a few techniques:
• Ask the audience questions. I recently saw this done successfully by a man who spoke on time management. When he invited questions from the audience and saw no hands raised, he asked, "How many of you feel organized - that you are using your time to your best advantage?" Not very many hands went up. He asked, "What's the problem?" One brave soul spoke up, "Children. That's my problem - a full-time job and children." This gave the speaker fuel for his fire. And once he began addressing this issue, others raised their hands with their own comments and questions.
• Plant someone in the audience. I've been a "plant" for speakers at Toastmasters meetings a couple of times. It's easy and it works. Write out a few questions, give them to one or two game and trustworthy people, and instruct them to ask you the questions should no legitimate questions be forthcoming.
• Bring up questions from other presentations. I used this method at a local high school several months ago. I gave my Writing For Life presentation before a senior journalism class. When I asked for questions, all I got were blank stares. I would have left the room, except that the teacher was counting on me to stay with the class for another twenty minutes while she attended a meeting. What was I to do? In this case, I'd brought my own questions.
I'd given the same program before a class of 8th graders at the junior high school the week before. These students asked such good questions that I wrote some of them down. I decided to use those questions to prime the pump with the senior class, and it worked like a charm.
Sometimes written questions are appropriate. Where the audience is very large and when the topic may be somewhat controversial, having audience members write their questions affords you the opportunity to screen them.
Hand out slips of paper with instructions to write the questions before and during (if you wish) the presentation. Ask runners to pick up the questions and screen them for you. Or you can review them during a break and read only those you feel represent the interest of the majority.
Random questions are fun and interesting and make the Q & A portion of a presentation entertaining as well as informative. People are usually interested in what others are thinking. To keep things orderly yet lively, respond to individuals from all areas of the room. Don't call on someone a second time until you've let others have a chance to speak.
Tune into your audience while fielding the questions to discern if you're holding their interest. If everyone seems fascinated hearing you talk about a recent geological theory, you might want to continue along the same vein. If the audience shows signs of restlessness, move on.
While most speakers open the floor to questions at the end of their talks, it's also okay to break your presentation into sections with a Q & A at the end of each section. You might say, "Before we continue, are there any questions about what we've covered so far?" This is especially effective if you're conducting a workshop or seminar. If people ask questions that will be answered in the next session, say that you'll be covering that material later in the program.
Some speakers start with questions. I've used that technique myself a time or two. If you ask questions of the audience, for example, it will give you an idea of who they are, what they know about the topic, and what their level of interest is. This will help you to decide what areas of your speech to focus more attention on.
In a large group, where time is strictly limited or where there's a potential for a lot of questions, you may want to set some ground rules. For example, allow one question per person and one minute per question.
Anytime you stand before a group, there's a chance you'll meet with some discord. Typically, it's someone trying to monopolize your time to discuss something of a personal nature. Discourage the person from taking up too much time by suggesting that he or she see you after the program to discuss the questions further.
You don't know everything, and no one expects you to. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so. Refer to an expert source or ask the questioner to see you after the program so you can take the person's name and address and provide the answer later.
If you're speaking before a group of folks with credentials similar to yours, ask if anyone in the audience has had experience in that area. I do this on occasion - especially if I'm speaking to other writers about an aspect of writing. I remember one incident where I was talking about the business of writing nonfiction and someone asked me about submitting fiction. Since this is not within my expertise, I asked if anyone in the audience had any information for this individual. Several people did.
The Question-and-Answer session is generally casual and impromptu, but a wise speaker hones his leadership skills before attempting to open the floor to questions.