EDITORS NOTE: David will be speaking at the Section's Technology Law Insitute in October. Stay tuned for future details on that event. In the interim, enjoy David's words of wisdom on handling Q&A sessions.
By David J. Dempsey, JD[1. David is the President and CEO of Neon Zebra, an Atlanta-based communications and presentation skills consulting company with one goal: empowering you to become the BEST speaker you can be, every time you speak. www.neon-zebra.com © 2009 Neon Zebra, LLC]
“Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement.” —President Ronald Reagan
Here is a bitter truism that those speakers who are rigidly tethered to a speech script do not want to hear: Most speakers do more to inspire, persuade, sell, and inform their listeners by confidently responding to audience questions than by anything they say during the prepared speech. I can hear the “say-it-ain’t-so” wails of anguish from the disciples who never deviate from the prepared speech. Sorry, it is time to leave the safe cocoon.
These unpredictable sessions give you an excellent opportunity to clarify and reinforce points, elaborate on issues, solidify your expertise, address misunderstandings, and perhaps persuade those who seem unpersuadable. Yes, you up the ante when you venture away from the safety of your carefully planned presentation and invite audience input, but the rewards outstrip the risks by a tremendous margin.
A question-and-answer session typically crackles with energy, often generating more interest than the prepared presentation. What accounts for its appeal? During a question-and-answer session, the speaker traipses into uncharted territory. When the questions start flying, everyone, even the drowsiest listener, snaps to attention and perches on the edge of his or her seat, especially if the exchange promises to be heated (such as when the speaker is advocating plunking a halfway house in the audience’s bucolic neighborhood).
A question-and-answer session is a tremendous opportunity—now listen, because this is important—if, and only if, you are prepared. If you are unprepared, the session can quickly become a treacherous minefield, the kind that has doomed even exceptional speakers. If you are unprepared, cower and pray when the questioning onslaught begins.
There are numerous rewards for deftly handling audience questions. Yet sometimes a speaker devotes not a single forethought to them; he just wings it: “I was just strolling through the Q & A neighborhood, and thought, "What the heck! Why not take a few questions . . . ?” That is a sure recipe for disaster. With no planning, this foolhardy speaker is often perplexed by even the most predictable questions. Staggered, he lamely mumbles an unresponsive reply, or he reaches into his handy grab bag of canned answers. If you do that, you can put one gigantic check mark in the squandered-opportunity column. And while you’re at it, let a little air out of your “expert” balloon to boot.
Ten Q & A Rules
All right, you are willing to add a little zest to your talk with questions. Now what? Unless you enjoy living on the edge—bungee jumping or skydiving—don’t enter the Q & A arena without a plan. Study these rules before you invite the first question.
1. KNOW THE TERRAIN
Do not simply cross your fingers and fervently hope that your audience will not ask the questions you are dreading. They will. In the same way that a predatory animal can smell fear, an audience has the uncanny ability to zero in with amazing accuracy on the tough questions. So you better be prepared, lest you find yourself under the heat of the spotlight, babbling and scrambling for some coherent thought.
What can you do? Start by knowing as much as possible about your audience before you speak. Anticipate their questions and plan your responses. Ask yourself the following:
- Are the questions likely to be pointed and probing or friendly and fluffy?
- Do my listeners understand the issues?
- What is the opposing position?
- What are the strengths of the opposing position?
- Am I advocating something that threatens my listeners?
- Am I dealing with emotional or inflammatory topics?
- What are the weaknesses in my position?
- Should I concede anything in my response?
- Do any listeners have a hidden agenda?
- How will I respond to provocative or irrelevant questions?
- What will I do if an audience member becomes confrontational?
Know the terrain and your vulnerabilities before you step into the Q & A arena.
2. DEVISE A PLAN
Before you speak, decide whether you will field questions during or after your speech. In your introduction or in your opening comments, clarify for your audience which approach you will take. Each has inherent advantages and disadvantages.
Accepting questions during the speech typically heightens the interest for everyone, it enables you to immediately gauge your audience’s interest and level of understanding, and it gives you an opportunity to correct misunderstandings quickly (what seems clear to you may be murky to your audience). This approach can be risky, however, if one of the questions baffles you or if it is only marginally related to your topic. In addition, the questions might divert your audience’s attention from your message. Finally, if you accept questions during the speech, your allotted time can quickly evaporate, so plan accordingly.
On the other hand, if you hold questions until you have completed your speech, you will be able to cover all of your points without interruption. Unfortunately, however, without immediate input from your audience, you limit your ability to evaluate their reaction to your message. Moreover, listeners may forget their questions or be reluctant to raise a question regarding a subject that you covered much earlier.
Either approach will work, but pick your path before you begin to speak.
3. UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION
Here is a simple rule: If you don’t understand a question, don’t guess. No one will think you are a dunce if you ask the questioner to explain or clarify the question. That is definitely preferable to taking a wild stab or answering unresponsively. If you are clueless but plunge into a response anyway, you may create confusion; irritate the questioner, who will conclude that you are being evasive or flippant; and irk the other audience members, who may think you are patronizing one of their kindred spirits in the audience. Clarify before responding.
4. THANK THE QUESTIONER
If you want to encourage questions, create a friendly, nonthreatening atmosphere. Solicit participation with an open-ended invitation for questions: “I know I covered that topic quickly. What questions do you have?” Also acknowledge and thank audience members for their participation: “Thank you for that question.”
This respectful attitude toward those who ask questions—yes, even when all you really want to do is pop the bozo in the nose—helps to build audience rapport, a worthy goal.
5. REPEAT THE QUESTION
If it is a large audience, repeat the question before responding, to ensure that everyone heard it. The listeners will appreciate your audience focus, and you will gain additional time to consider your response. If you are momentarily stumped, even a few seconds can help while your brain whirs away searching for a reasonably coherent thought.
6. ADMIT IT IF YOU DO NOT KNOW
Some speakers feel that saying “I do not know” will cause them to turn to stone. It is not merely okay to admit ignorance, it is preferable at times. Unless the question is clearly one that you should know the answer to (“Is it not true that Giovanni ‘The Hatchet Man’ Gotti handed you a greasy duffel bag filled with fifty thousand dollars in crisp one-hundred-dollar bills?”), it’s perfectly acceptable to respond by saying, “I am sorry, but I dont know the answer. Let me see if I can find out and get back to you.”
Understand, however, that there is no substitute for thorough preparation, and if you are intentionally unresponsive (“A greasy duffel bag jammed with cash? Let me think . . . I’m not sure.”) or cagey (“That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”), your audience will quickly become exasperated.
7. REMAIN COMPOSED
Stay positive and composed despite questions that are antagonistic (“Your position is just double-stupid!”), personal (“I would not expect a chauvinist pig like you to understand!”), or irrelevant (“Why, oh why, are we having tuna pot pies for lunch again?”). Do not let hostile questioners provoke an angry response from you. An emotional response is often precisely what they want to accomplish. Be firm but polite. Smile, grit your teeth, and agree to disagree. Shouting invectives may be cathartic, but it is neither helpful nor persuasive.
8. BE BRIEF
Get to the point. Don’t ramble, filibuster, or browbeat when responding. This only annoys your listeners, creates confusion, and generates more questions. Your listeners will better understand and remember concise, focused answers. Being brief also enables you to address more questions in the time allotted. Answer succinctly, and let your listeners get on with their lives.
9. PRACTICE Q & A
Round up all of your inquisitive, annoying, and stubborn friends (don’t tell them that this combination of characteristics is why they were selected) and role-play. Practice responding to their questions. This will hone your ability to think on your feet and to formulate crisp, responsive answers. Have your inquisitors ask every conceivable type of question, because that is exactly what you can expect from your audience: compound, convoluted, and confrontational questions posed by bewildered, inarticulate, and hostile questioners.
Some of the questioners in your audience will have amazingly fertile imaginations; others will have hidden agendas; and still others will just be dunderheads. Inevitably there will be at least one who will thrill to the sound of her own voice and will welcome any opportunity to pontificate. The practice sessions will help you prepare for all of them.
10. STUDY THE VIDEOTAPES
Prepare yourself first; then dive in and analyze the videotapes of both your practice sessions and your live presentations involving Q & A. This process may be painful, but it will be profitable, I promise.
Be analytical, and ask yourself these questions: “Was I responsive, or were my answers gobbledygook?” “Did I remain composed and focused, or did I blather?” “Did I sound confident, or confused?” “Did I focus on the questioner, or did I allow my eyes to dart around?” The videotape reveals exactly what your audience will see, so study it, internalize the lessons, and improve. Deftly fielding questions is a developed skill, which you need to practice.
Venturing from your script can be a tad unnerving, but you can minimize the risks with careful planning. Handle questions adroitly, and you will distinguish yourself and gain credibility with every audience. Just don’t enter that briar patch unprepared; many speakers have done that, and they have not been heard from since.