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10 great tips on handling Q&A sessions

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For many presenters, dealing with the Question & Answer (Q&A) session can be the worst and most nerve-wracking aspect of presenting or speaking in public. But handled properly, it is a fantastic opportunity to show just how much you know about your subject. Here are 10 great tips for handling Q&As that will make you look authoritative, empathetic and most of all, a good listener!

1.Maintain control during the presentation

There are two things you can do to do this, and they are especially important if your audience is more senior than yourself. The first is to give an overview immediately after your powerful opener (see How To Grab 'Em By TheThroat) explaining what you are going to cover during the presentation. This does not need to be a detailed agenda (which can sometimes be tedious); just ticking off on your fingers the things you're going to talk about will do. Right-brained people need to know what the 'big picture' is before they will listen to any of its detail and if you don't give them this, they will interrupt and ask questions about things you are planning to cover later on.

Immediately after this you should remind the audience of the time limitations you have and tell them there will be a Q&A session at the end. If someone does interrupt, you can merely remind them of what you said, and explain that it is because you have limited time. Most people will respond to this. If the interrupter insists on an answer and is senior to you, there's nothing you can do. If you quite willingly take questions as they arise, you risk losing control.

2. Plan in advance

If you know your subject matter (and if you don't why are you giving a presentation on it?), you can probably identify 90% of the questions that are likely to be asked. What are your audience's concerns and interests right now? What is their biggest problem and does your topic link to it in any way (if it does, you can bet your bottom dollar they'll raise it)? Brainstorm in advance, and identify the top ten likely questions, then prepare a fantastic ‘impromptu’ answer for each.

3. Plant some questions in the audience

When nobody asks a question it might mean that your talk has been boring or gone on too long, or that they are tired (if you are the last speaker on a packed program, don’t expect a lot of questions!) but sometimes it’s simply that nobody wants to be first! It can be embarrassing if there are no questions, so one approach is to ‘plant’ a couple of questions on audience members you know. Once they have been asked, other audience members will feel more at ease asking theirs.

4. Watch your body language

Obama chin stroke Obama hand to mouth

When listening to a question (especially a hostile or difficult one), you want to come across as open, receptive and non-defensive. So make sure it's nice and open (no folded arms - see The Power of Posture) and that you don't touch your face, which indicates negativity or discomfort. The only acceptable hand-to-face gesture is a chin stroke as in the first photo of President Obama to the right, which indicates that you're thinking about what's being said. But do NOT put your fingers across the mouth like the second photo. This makes it look as though you want to interrupt and are physically holding your response in (to learn more about hand-to-face gestures, see Non-verbal leakage). Can you see the difference?

5. Look like you're listening

  • Establish eye contact with the questioner
  • Nod your head slowly
  • Frown slightly as if you're thinking
  • Cock your head to one side

6. Don't answer straight away

If this is a question you've been asked before, or if it's one you've prepared for in advance, you'll know what you're going to say. But if you launch straight into your response the second the audience member's stopped speaking, you'll look like a smart ass. So ......

  • Nod to yourself for a couple of seconds and look like you're thinking about what he has said.
  • Then compliment her by saying something like, 'That's a good question,' or 'An excellent point to bring up.'
  • If it's a large audience and the questioner hasn't used a microphone, Repeat the question to make sure the people behind her have heard it.

7. Bat it back to the audience

If someone raises an objection and you don't want it to become confrontational, a good technique is to nod vigorously at the end of the question and say, 'When I'm asked that question, I always say ...' or 'I always think it's like this ....' Then pause, as if it's just occurred to you, and say, 'No ... I tell you what ... why don't we see what the rest of the audience thinks.' That way, someone else might deal with the objection, which saves you from becoming embroiled in an argument. At the very least, it will give you time to think

8. Don't be afraid to say, 'I don't know'

President Lincoln once said, 'It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.' You don't have to know everything. So rather than waffle or bull~#*@t, just admit you don't know the answer. Then add, 'But I'll find out and get back to you.'

9. Use the three Fs: ‘Feel/felt/found

Say, “I understand why you feel that way. In fact, I (or ‘several people I’ve spoken to’) used to feel the same way. Until I (they) found that ......” and then present the opposing evidence.

Nobody likes to admit they’re wrong or that they’ve made a mistake. People like to be able to blame someone else. By using ‘feel/felt/found’ you are in effect saying, “The only reason you believed the wrong thing was that you didn’t have all the available evidence to hand. If you’d had that evidence, you would never have believed that.”

In other words, they aren’t to blame. Whoever didn't give them all the evidence is. You’ve just allowed them to save face (see 10 techniques to use when logic isn't doing the trick for more sneaky persuasion techniques).

10. Never tell people they are wrong

NOTHING is more guaranteed to increase resistance than to tell someone they’re wrong. How do you feel if somebody says it to you? It’s human nature to become defensive.

You may as well lean over and stuff cotton wool in their ears, because they will immediately stop listening and either begin to argue or (at the very least) start to thinking of what they’ll say in response. Instead, tell them they’re right. The words "I agree” or  “you’re right ...” are music to our ears. It’s exactly what we all want to hear.

Obviously, this is to lull them into a false sense of security, because immediately afterwards you are going to tell them why their beliefs need to change.  But the words ‘you’re right’ lower their defenses as they get ready to listen to you list all the reasons they’re right. So they are listening, and are therefore much more likely to actually hear what you say next.

So say, “You’re right, and what I’d add is that .....” or “I agree, and what I’d add is ...”

Note that I used the word ‘and’ instead of ‘but’. If you say, “I agree, but ....”, their de fences will immediately go up and they’ll stop listening. Saying “I agree, and ....” implies that you are going to add to their argument, not oppose it.

For example: “You’re right Jane, and what I’d add is that now customers’ expectations have changed, and we have to change too.”
“I agree that it’s expensive, and that’s because the benefits are so huge.”
“I agree that it’s not cheap, and that’s because the quality is so high.”
“You’re right; it isn’t cheap, and would add that’s despite the payback on the investment beings quick.”

An alternative is to say, “I agree with almost all of that, and what I’d add is ...” This is deliberately vague, because it doesn’t tell them which bits of their argument you agree with and which you oppose, so they switch into ‘listening mode’ to try and find out.

And one final point:

If you’ve used your ‘big close’ before the Q&A session, you run the risk of handling the questions and then just fading off stage at the end. So either:

  • Save the ‘Big Close’ until after the Q&A, or
  • Have a second close


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