You’ve invested weeks preparing for this presentation. Your effective delivery and the crowd’s engagement show you’ve done an outstanding job. After delivering a memorable conclusion, you must spend another thirty minutes answering questions from the participants. It’s not until the first attendee raises her hand that you remember you never honored your commitment to prepare for the Q&A. As the audience peppers you with questions, your attention is split between providing answers and reminding yourself to do better at your next address. Sounds familiar?
Despite the countless books, training materials, and workshops on public speaking, very little emphasis is put on post-delivery Q&A. You may wonder, what do I prepare for when I cannot predict what questions the audience will ask? That’s a legitimate concern, however, the impromptu aspect of the audience’s probing is the principal reason you must devise a strategy. You just can’t let your unpreparedness cause you to mishandle the attendee’s queries and undermine the credibility you’ve built during the appearance. Therefore, you need a well-designed roadmap to handle questions and answers.
Based on years of experience and observation, I discovered there is no one-size-fits-all approach to navigating audiences’ questions. How you tackle Q&A depends primarily on the kinds of asker you come across. These are the main types of attendees, viz; the clarity seeker, the challenger, and the talker. This classification isn’t mutually exclusive nor comprehensively exhaustive. However, they represent situations you’re most likely to encounter during questions and answers and how to handle them.
The Clarity Seeker
The clarity seeker is the type of participant who just wants you to clarify a point you made in your presentation. It could be an idea you omitted, misexplained, or an argument they didn’t comprehend. This is the commonest case scenario and the easiest to deal with. First, thank the attendee, acknowledge the importance of their questions for yourself and the rest of the audience, then elaborate. Finally, show that you care by confirming they understand your explanation.
The challenger, as the name suggests, asks questions to challenge the presenter. It could be for one of the following reasons: an error of facts, a lapse in explanation, or simply because they hold a different perspective. Unlike a clarity seeker, it’s important to establish a common ground with the challenger before you answer. State how their ideas relate to yours and transition smoothly to the diverging aspects. You must maintain an open mind and not assume your views are obvious. When answering, make sure you separate your opinions from data. Always have your sources ready and share them with the challenger. If they’re not satisfied, you can offer to meet them after the presentation, if time allows.
Participants who wrap their questions in extended talks characterize this group. Because they can lose everyone in the audience, you must listen attentively to grasp the gist of their story. Attending to a talker may also soothe the embarrassment they may feel when they realize everyone’s annoyance.
Once they’ve expressed themselves fully, appreciate them for being so detailed by echoing one or two examples from their talks. Summarize their mini-lecture in three sentences maximum, then paraphrase their question in a concise and clear sentence. Confirm with them that your summary and paraphrase are correct. If they agree, they have simplified your life because you can forget everything they said and focus on the questions you paraphrased. If they disagree, offer to meet them after the presentation citing time constraints and a better chance to elaborate if you talk to them privately.
Maybe, you wonder, “should I interrupt a talker?” Yes, you may, but this needs to be made meticulously and professionally. You could subtly stop a talker by creating interactions with them during their long talks. Once they’ve stopped to listen to you, you can take the advantage of asking them to meet you after the speech for further explanation.
You may encounter attendees that don’t match any of three types or exhibit two or more characteristics of a category simultaneously. For instance, an audience who asks irrelevant questions or a “talker challenger.” What to do? The straightforward answer is to be creative. Experience provides better insights than any single article. Use those techniques as raw materials and mold them whichever way fits your preference and the situations you face. Ultimately, the way you handle a Q&A depends on the unique circumstance you come across.