Question and answer sessions are the best way to reinforce your key messages from a presentation. Hearing different voices can be a good way to get the attention of the audience, but the purpose is to allow members of the audience to obtain both clarification and confirmation of your key messages. It, therefore, reduces the chance that any members of the audience will leave your presentation with any misunderstandings about the concepts delivered.
The question and answer sessions can be seen as a series of impromptu speeches by the presenter that will have followed a prepared speech. This, potentially, makes it harder than the actual presentation. The issue, therefore, becomes "how can you ensure that the question and answer session doesn't derail you?"
Set out your stall at the beginning of your presentation
Let your audience know early in the presentation that you intend to have a question and answer session at the end of your speech. This encourages people to think of questions during the presentation; if you only announce "any questions?" at the end of your speech it is that much harder for the audience to come up with appropriate questions.
Encourage the questions to flow
To look good it is not a bad idea to have a plant or two that can ask pre-arranged questions where you can deliver prepared responses (be careful not to make this too obvious!). This both enables you to continue to look good as well as to encourage others to ask questions.
Restate each question clearly
Look at the person asking the question, and repeat it, especially if there is a large audience. This not only ensures that you understood the question but also gives you time to consider your answer should you require it.
Once you begin your answer do not continue looking at the questioner as it is the whole audience who should hear your answer - not just the person who asked the question.
As you end your answer, look back at the person and his/her facial expression will tell if you answered the question satisfactorily.
Anticipate the questions
Anticipate likely questions and formulate possible responses before you present, and consider how to refer to your speech as you respond to the question. This reinforces the content of your speech and helps maintain the focus of the question and answer session.
Keep your answer concise and to the point. Don't give another speech, otherwise, you risk boring the audience. It could well be that the only person interested in the answer is the one who asked the question! However, resist answering with simply a "yes" or "no", as it may sound dismissive. If the question is complex, answer as concisely as possible and then offer to meet the questioner later for further discussion.
Beware the loaded question! This is where the questioner wants to shoot your answer down. As an example, suppose someone asks you "How much time is it going to take for us to familiarise ourselves with this new system?" You can anticipate that they want to follow up with "We are already working flat out. There is no way that we can devote any time to learning this new system." Defuse this potentially hostile exchange by saying "We appreciate that in order for you all to be able to become familiar with this new system, time will need to be freed up to enable you to do this task." You would then outline what steps you have already undertaken that will allow this to happen. Your ability to defuse such a question is in reality more of a measure of your Stakeholder/Project Management skills than Q & A skills but considering potentially loaded questions up front may prompt you to think of the required Stakeholder Management steps that you should be thinking about.
Comment instead of question
Occasionally you will be given a question that is no more than a comment, or worse still, a speech. If this occurs simply say "Thanks for your comment... Next question?" This may require you to interrupt if the questioner's "speech" goes on too long; you can do this by using the above interruption as soon as the person stops to catch a breath and then immediately look to the other side of the room. It is imperative that you politely terminate the "speech" otherwise the rest of your audience will be deprived of the opportunity to ask questions.
If you sense that there is a section of the audience that wants to dominate the Q & A session use a tactic such as "We've heard from this side of the room" and walk over to the side of the room from which you have not had a question. "Let's hear from this side of the room" or you could say "We've heard from people with this point of view. Now let's give a chance for someone who has a different viewpoint and would like to ask me a question."
As always politeness is the order of the day. Simply acknowledge the interest of the question, and say that it isn't strictly appropriate to today's topic but you'll be delighted to meet the questioner after the session to discuss his question on a one-to-one basis.
Don't praise questions
Many people say "Good question." If the next person who asks a question doesn't get the same response it sounds as though you are passing a judgement that you found that question less than good, so don't praise the question!
Save your conclusion until the end of the question and answer session
This ensures that you can end the session on a high so when you wish to end the Q & A session ask "Before I make some concluding remarks, who has a question to ask?"
While you should have prepared your conclusion you will need to be prepared to have modified it according to how the Q&A session went, so this is undoubtedly more demanding than presenting the conclusion before the Q&A session, but it is well worth it in order to guarantee ending the session on a high note.
The golden rule is always to be polite to the audience and maintain an aura of calm, no matter how hard someone may be in trying to give you a hard time.
As the speaker, you are held to a higher standard than your questioners. A questioner may get away with insulting you, but you will not get away with insulting a questioner.
Be Honest. People are fed up with hearing politicians on the radio and on television who evade the question. Don't be like them unless you want to lose your credibility. If you don't know the answer to a question, say so, but volunteer to get back to that person with an answer. Avoid suggesting where they might get an answer from - people are also fed up with being pushed from one person to another. If you have been asked a question it is your responsibility to deal with it; refer to other sources only when you can guarantee that they will give appropriate responses.
Remember that many speaking situations really involve two presentations: the formal presentation and the question and answer period. Ensure success with both presentations by using the techniques described above for the question and answer period.
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This article was written by Michael Ronayne, director at the College of Public Speaking and four-time UK National Public Speaking Champion.
To discover more of Michael's top training techniques, check out his professionally accredited Train the Trainer course here