How to handle a Q&A session


Much has been written (not least by me!) about the type, amount and quality of material that constitute a good presentation and the best way to go about delivering it. But far less attention has been paid to the thought and preparation that must go into handling any question and answer sessions that follow.

"Why waste time on thinking about something we can have no control over?" I hear you asking!

Well, actually, good presenters do have control. Good presenters (always totally conversant with their material) will also have taken the time to find out in advance the type of audience they can expect to find waiting for them. Knowing this, they can get a sense of the type and quality of questions to expect.

Put crudely, a room full of senior finance executives won't ask the same questions as a room full of young new media creatives. But if the presenter knows roughly who they are up against, even combative or provocative questions - as long as they are to the point - should be welcomed because they are likely to strengthen their own knowledge-base.

So with this preparation in mind, how should you go about handling a Q&A session?

Don't be scared of silence: After questions have been called for, don't allow that peculiarly expectant silence that inevitably follows to alarm you. If it does, try working out in your own mind what question you would have asked had you been a member of your own audience. The first questioner is likely to pop up before you have finished deciding!

Don't let yourself get ambushed: Occasionally, there will be a person ready to pounce as soon as questions have been called for. Don't get hassled. Breathe out deeply. Allow yourself time to take in the next breath which, because it will be full of oxygen, can make it easy for your brain to formulate an answer and for your body to feel comfortable.

However, before you begin your answer, make sure to stand face-on to your audience and repeat back to them the question clearly and audibly. Once that's done, everyone will be able to take part in the exchange of ideas that follows.

Summarise accurately: If you decide to summarise what was said or a lengthy question, make sure you are not summarising something you wish had been said!

Calm and courteous: Deal with all questioners thoughtfully and courteously. Never ignore someone whose question is not pertinent or who you feel is being deliberately obtuse. Answer them seriously but briefly, then move on.

If you do not understand what someone asks, don't get flustered. Ask them to repeat or reword the question until you're quite clear what they mean. Do not allow rancor to sully the eventual answer. But - as conflict is a great teacher - if the person is a worthy opponent, let battle commence!

Don't be afraid to admit you don't know: Have the courage to admit that you don't know the answer to some questions. If you are aware of a resource they could turn to for a more definitive response, and refer to it, make sure to spell it out and write it up for all to see.

Answer to everybody: When answering a particular question, never focus solely on the person who asked it. Acknowledge him or her directly when you start to respond and from time to time during that response, but always ensure that the whole of your reply reaches the whole of your audience.

I am sure that many of you have points you would wish to add to this list. Do let us know in the comments below. After all, the more we can make presenting a comfort zone rather than a terror trap, the better we can make innovative ideas bloom and grow.

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About The Author

Janet Howd
Janet Howd

Janet Howd is a voice coach who works with corporate, academic, legal, theatrical and private clients in the UK, North America, Australia and Europe.