When we have prepared our presentation, practised and become familiar with its content, the assumption might be that we are ready for the podium. Not so fast. There’s still the outstanding task of preparing for a question and answer session — that moment near the end of our presentation when we ask for questions…and our hearts jump.
When it’s managed well a question and answer session serves several vital purposes: it emphasizes our grasp of the presentation subject; it boosts our standing with the audience; it enables audience participation and it builds the prospect of a grand finale to the presentation. And typically a good question and answer session is well managed and planned. To get the best results there are 5 main points to note before the event:
- Be prepared. Each and every point made in our presentation could invite a question from the audience. To be prepared for this we need to work through all of our material. We need to imagine and note down the questions that might crop up. These questions might require further explanation, clarification or opinion. And our opinion will be sought — it does count for a lot. For each question that we note down we should prepare a written answer. And finally we should aim to become totally familiar with each of these question and answer pairs.
- Consider the audience. No matter how much thought you put into predicting questions your audience will think of something else. But that’s not a problem either. Our audience is likely to have a shared, or known, background. They might be members of the same trade association, work in the same area, live in the same State or work for the same employer. Our knowledge of their shared interests will go a long way in anticipating their questions — questions with a local angle, an industry viewpoint or a trade association perspective.
- Note the news. In spite of all our preparation news events can still conspire against us. But it’s still not a problem. The evening before the presentation simply pick up that copy of USA Today that’s sitting in the hotel lobby. Scan the headlines for topical events and anything that might be relevant to the presentation. We can go further by picking up a local newspaper or watching the local TV news reports on the day that we present. Sports, politics, business or even entertainment news might be a lead into a question area with our audience.
- Place a question. That awkward moment between the call for questions and the first question being asked might well define the success of our whole presentation. Anything other than some interest from the audience is tough to manage. But there’s a method that we can use. First we must be conscious of the time. If we have overrun the time slot or if we can hear the caterers massing for lunch then we must be brief. Second, we must remember to outline how many questions we will take or how much time we have — a physical look at a watch works well at this juncture. And finally we need to take a pre-placed question from the audience. This is not trickery and it’s not underhand. But it’s rare for an audience member to pop up with an engaging inspiring question immediately. Our pre-placed question does the job. Once that’s out the way other questions will follow naturally.
- Be brief. Our answers must be brief, concise and to the point. This is not the time to discuss a mass of arcane detail. That can be kept for later. Our answers should be directed back to the questioner — with plenty of eye contact. If necessary we might need to repeat the question for the benefit of the rest of the audience before we give an answer. This might be needed if microphones are not available. Our answer is not a chance for a debate with the questioner. Should our answer invite further questions from the same questioner then we must volunteer to take the matter up later in the lobby — and then ask for the next question. And, of course, the whole exercise must be handled courteously.
With the time available for questions at an end now is the time to bring our presentation to an end with the grand finale — our concluding remarks. Some event organisers try to secure questions at the end of a presentation but the ending typically does not do justice to the speaker’s work. Resist them. The best practice appears to be a question and answer session followed by a presenter’s concluding remarks.
A properly executed question and answer session can be a rewarding experience for both speaker and audience alike. Yes, there’s a dependency on us to use imagination and resource in our preparation. And yes, we do need to apply some stage management to prime the first question. Preparation and execution is everything. And when it’s followed by a resounding thought provoking conclusion the importance of the question and answer session is clear to see.