Q&A: Getting the Questions You Want

Engage your audience and then guide them through the Q&A process.

By Matt Abrahams, Co-Founder and Principal, Bold Echo Communications Solutions

The sound of silence… that uncomfortable lull at the end of your presentation when you ask for questions, and it takes a moment or two for someone to get up the nerve to speak.

In that moment, you hope for any response. Is your audience asleep, did they understand anything, was the material too complex, or do they just want to leave? Too frequently, question- and-answer (Q&A) sessions are silent. That’s because the Q&A session is an abrupt transition from monologue to dialog, from presentation to facilitation. Making this switch is hard for both audience and speaker alike. Yet, your audience needs you to lead them through this transition. They expect you to “command the room.” The quick switch to interactivity and a more equal balance of status and power can be confusing, challenging, and anxiety provoking. However, in the right circumstances, Q&A can provide an opportunity for you to clarify complex ideas or expand on issues of particular relevance for your audience. So, how can you make the most of these sessions and get the types of questions you want?

In my research and practice, I have discovered that Q&A best practices can be divided into two broad categories:

  1. The types of things you can do in your presentation to prepare your audience to come up with good interactive questions.
  2. The ways in which you call for questions.

My experience of listening to thousands of presentations has taught me that the more interactive, connected, and involved they are, the more willing audience members are to actively participate in Q&A. Additionally, having an engaged audience often reduces speaking anxiety because you are working with your audience, rather than being judged by them. So, what specifically can you do to involve your audience? I strongly recommend using Audience Connecting Techniques (ACTs) to get your audience to participate with you. ACTs demand involvement from your audience. They make audience members sit forward in their chairs engaged, rather than passively waiting to be fed information.

One easy to use ACT is to ask your audience to participate. For example, “With a show of hands, how many of you have…” or “Point to the side of my slide that best represents your experience.” Requests such as these literally show your audience they are involved in your presentation.

Another useful ACT is to ask your audience to visualize a situation or outcome. Since your audience is seeing something in their mind’s eye, rather than just listening to you describe it, they become more engaged, and your point becomes more vivid and lasting for them.

Possibly the most important ACT is to focus on the relevance of your topic for your audience. Helping your audience to see the value of your topic to them is critical to getting them engaged. Be sure to spend time detailing the specific links between your topic and your audience’s lives. Relevancy is the best antidote for apathy, and it brings with it a high level of participation.

A final ACT is to use the pronoun “you” whenever possible. For example, “This is important for you” or “Youknow that this means….” “You” is not only more conversational and inviting, but it drives home the point that the audience is directly involved in the presentation.

Once your audience is eager to ask questions because they feel connected to you and your topic, you need to solicit their queries in a way that maintains your credibility and authority while allowing you to be humble, open, and responsive. This transition to an actual conversation with your audience can be tricky, but it can be made easier by:

  1. The expectations you establish when you call for questions.
  2. How you collect the questions you intend to answer.

Too often, Q&A sessions are opened with generic invitations such as, “Are there any questions?” Broad invitations such as this are often too open ended for audience members to come up with focused, concrete questions. Rather, I suggest asking for the exact type of questions you desire to answer. For example, “I would like to spend five to 10 minutes answering questions about the solution I provided.” This more restrictive opening helps your audience know what types of questions to ask, establishes you as being in control, and leads to questions you are prepared to answer.

It is important to reflect on the anxiety involved in the Q&A session. As the presenter, it is easy to understand anxiety you might feel, but audience members also experience nervousness during the Q&A session. While you have had a chance to warm up and become comfortable with speaking in your environment, audience members do not have that advantage. Further, they are feeling the influence of several pressures. First, audience members might fear looking stupid and foolish by asking a question. Second, they may be highly sensitive to the power dynamics (e.g., the boss being present) or societal norms (e.g., it is disrespectful to question a speaker). Finally, audience members might not want to put you on the spot and make you look bad. Unfortunately, as a presenter who desires good, interactive questions, you must take on the added burden of helping your audience get their questions to you.

When accumulating questions, you have a few options available that go beyond the standard call-and-respond methodology. To begin, you can request that audience members write down their questions on notecards (or post them via text messages). This allows for some degree of anonymity for the asker and allows you to prioritize which questions you would like to answer. Next, you can follow the lead of famous venture capitalist John Doeer and solicit all questions first—writing them down—and then answer them in the order you wish. Like the written approach above, you can prioritize and link questions together. Finally, you can ask your audience members to speak briefly with someone sitting near them to discuss possible questions prior to asking them. This approach allows everyone to practice or test his or her question, plus answers might be provided by partners instead of you.

So while Q&A sessions may seem daunting, I strongly recommend getting your audience engaged and then guiding them through the Q&A process. You create a better learning environment, your audience is likely to retain more information, you get to expand your influence, andyou can get the questions you want without having to endure awkward silence.

Professor Matt Abrahams is a passionate, collaborative, and innovative educator and consultant with more than 20 years of experience helping people confidently deliver presentations. He teaches at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and Continuing Studies Program, Palo Alto University, and De Anza College, Cupertino, CA. Abrahams is also co-founder and principal at Bold Echo Communications Solutions, a presentation and communication skills company based in Silicon Valley that helps people improve their presentation skills. Abrahams is the author of “Speaking Up Without Freaking Out,” a new pocket guide written to help the millions of people who suffer from anxiety around speaking in public.

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