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Presentation skills, Handling Q&A sessions

Questions, Anyone?

It ain't over till it's over, goes the saying. And it ain't over till you've successfully handled whatever questions may come up during or after your presentation. Here, in Q&A form, are some tips on how to approach this often-critical aspect of your presentation.

Why are questions and your responses so important?
Questions are the interactive element of your presentation. They give you a chance to respond to the concerns of your audience by adjusting your presentation on the fly. Plus, you can take each one as an opportunity to support your argument and reinforce your message. It's also an opportunity to learn more about your audience and give them a chance to see you think on your feet.

What's the best way to prepare for questions?
Start by anticipating questions that might come up. What questions are likely to be prompted by your presentation? But don't stop there. If you've done your audience analysis, you should know what concerns your listeners might have, even those unrelated to your presentation that could lead to questions. Make a list of all the questions that might arise, including especially the toughest ones. Then prepare a response for each one and make this part of your rehearsal. Prepare even if you're not sure there will be a formal Q&A session. Be ready for those "impromptu" questions that might arise.

Once the questions start coming, what should you do?
First, listen to the question. You may have to go beneath the surface and read between the lines. You may detect a hidden motive behind the question. A little paranoia won't hurt, but don't assume either that every question is a loaded one. The toughest questions can come from those who agree with you, but who may simply want to get a more complete answer.

"Make sure you hear and understand the full question before answering."

Make sure you hear and understand the full question before answering. Ask for clarification of anything you don't understand. Don't pre-empt the questioner by answering before the question is fully stated.

Be straightforward. If you don't know the answer, don't guess. Admit you don't know; offer to get the answer and provide it to your questioner.

What types of questions—or questioners—should you be wary of?
There are those who will take over questioning, if you let them. It may be just a few people who keep asking away. Some like to give a mini-speech of their own. Some may have their own agenda and will ask a question intended to promote themselves or their own views. Some may not have paid attention and will ask a question you've already covered in your presentation or in one of your other answers. Some may ask totally irrelevant questions. Some may be downright hostile.

How do you stay in control when any of these things happens?
It's not your job to provide others with a soapbox of their own. If someone starts to dominate a Q&A session, respond to the first question or comment, then move on to include other people in the interaction. Make sure no one else has a question, before you come back to the same person or call an end to the Q&A session.

If someone missed something you said in your presentation, repeat it briefly. It's possible others may have missed it too. Even if you've already answered the question, respond again, being careful not to embarrass someone who may not have been paying attention.

If the question is totally irrelevant, allow it if it serves your interest. But again, keep your answer short. If you would gain nothing by answering, state that you want to keep the discussion focused on the subject.

Be quick to correct a questioner who wrongly paraphrases something you said or makes an assumption you don't share. Don't be led into giving yes-or-no answers if you'd rather put your answer in context.

What about hostile questions?
These pose a special challenge, and they can come in a variety of forms. Again, not every tough question is a hostile one. But some questions clearly are, and those are easy enough to spot. They may come as a challenge to something you've said, or even as an attack on you. (See our article, Facing the Hostile Audience.)

How should you deal with hostile questions?
The best way is to head them off. Consider what parts of your presentation could lead to disagreement. Your audience analysis, for example, might indicate certain biases or preconceptions among your listeners. You may be able to address these by embedding what amounts to a rebuttal in your presentation.

Don't put the questioner on the defensive and certainly don't criticize the questioner. Get right to the issues. You may find an area of agreement that you can build on in your response. Stick to the facts and to what you know.

What if there are no questions?
Turn the tables. Go to a specific point you made in your presentation—one that's likely to stimulate discussion. Ask your listeners what they think. Do they agree with you? Do they have other opinions? Some of your listeners may have questions they'd rather not ask in an open meeting. Allow for that possibility by offering to take questions one-on-one at the end of the session.

Are there other techniques that help?
Think of responding to questions as part of your presentation. In reality, you're still presenting. Hold eye focus with your questioner. Listen closely. Don't interrupt. Maintain a neutral stance. Refrain from nodding as if indicating that you hear or understand the question. That can be taken as a sign that you agree with what is stated in the question. Pause before answering, keeping your focus on the questioner. During your answer, move your eyes to include others in the room. End your answer with your eyes focused on someone else. If you return your focus to the questioner, that can invite another question from that same person.

As the presentation comes to an end and you've taken your final question, it's a good to idea to repeat your closing remarks, particularly if you've been responding to questions for a while. That way you can drive home your call to action and avoid ending on a vague or weak note.

What's the best kind of answer?
Short. Simple. Concise.

A final note.
You can craft a great presentation and deliver it brilliantly. But if you fumble in responding to questions you can damage your credibility and sink your presentation in a flash.

To apply these tips and to be at your absolute best when you're responding to questions, work privately with one of our consultants or attend an advanced presentations seminar to learn to handle questions smoothly and effectively.

This Issue

To answer all your questions about questions and boost your ability to handle them when they arise, you can enroll in our advanced seminar on Q&A skills and persuasion held at our New York City location. Or you can call us for one-on-one coaching to hone your technique in private. We'll come to your location for group or individual sessions. You can raise your skills to the next level or hone in to prepare for a specific upcoming presentation. For more information, follow the links or give us a call at 1-800-874-8278 or outside the US, +1 201 894 8200.

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