by Steve Adubato, PhD

One of the most important components of an effective presentation is the question and answer session. I am not a big fan of waiting until the “end” of your presentation before engaging in an interactive fashion with your audience. But for many, the Q&A format remains a staple in public speaking. So if you are going to do a Q&A, you might as well do it right. Consider some questions and some answers that should help.

Q—What if I ask for questions from the audience and all I get is awkward silence?

A—One of the worst questions a speaker can ask an audience is “any questions?” This question triggers audience discomfort. Who is going to be the first one to ask a question? Even if someone has a question, they are worried whether it is going to be a really good one. Most audience members need to be prodded before they speak up. I suggest have a question of your own prepared for a specific audience member. If you don’t know everyone by name, just point someone out and ask; “Excuse me, your first name is?” “John.” “Great, John, let me ask you which part of the plan that I’ve proposed will impact directly on you and your team?” The idea is to get John talking and based on what he says, facilitate a dialogue with other audience members; “John feels that the plan will cause him to cut expenses dramatically. Who sees it differently?” Your goal is to build momentum with the Q&A.

Q—What if someone is particularly hostile and asks a question intended to embarrass the speaker?

A—No big deal. No matter how negative and nasty an audience member is, great communicators remain calm and respectful. Don’t take the bait. Be gracious and let the questioner know that you appreciate his point of view but see things differently. If he persists, politely but directly say, “It’s clear that you feel strongly about this, but I want to give others a chance to be heard.” And then move on to another audience member. Don’t debate or argue. Nothing good will come from it.

Q—If you’ve been asked a multi-part question, which one should you respond to?

A—You have a choice. It could be the last part of the question, the part you remember or the one you really want to answer. You could also turn back to the questioner and say, “Jane, you’ve asked several questions in one. Which one is the most important to you?

Q—What are some of the most common mistakes communicators make in the Q&A session?

Some speakers feel they must have an answer to every question. That’s unrealistic. If you don’t know, just say so. Why not ask the questioner how he would answer his own question; “I’m not really sure about that one, Joe, tell me how you see it.” Another common mistake is going on too long with an answer. Long-winded answers will kill a presentation. Even if your speech was solid, if you drone on during the Q&A, that’s what people will remember. Your goal is to answer in 20 seconds or less, with thirty seconds the maximum. Another mistake is answering a question even if we are not sure what has been asked of us. We guess at the questioner’s intent, when instead, we should clarify; “So, Bill, you are asking how much the project will cost?” If Bill’s intent is different, the question can then be clarified. Paraphrasing is a powerful communication technique that can be utilized in a variety of settings, including in a successful Q&A session.