How to finish your big speech with a winning Q&A session

By Maria Guida
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As a top executive who speaks publicly, you answer many questions posed by your audiences. An effective Q&A session stimulates your listeners, gives you an opportunity to clarify and reinforce your message, and provides valuable information regarding your audience. To present with power and gravitas, treat your Q&A session with the same seriousness of purpose as the body of your presentation.

First of all, don’t announce at the beginning of your presentation that there will be a Q&A session. Doing so might cause audience members to spend time thinking about what they might ask you or (worse) assume they can tune out during the presentation and tune back in during the Q&A. Your presentation needs the drama of a Broadway play: Always find ways to keep the audience riveted to what you are saying in the current moment.

You should allow 10 or 15 minutes for the Q&A, even if you do respond to questions during the presentation itself. Also remember that during the Q&A, most of your audience members will identify with the questioners, so treat all questions with sincerity and respect.

If you receive opinion questions, whose answers are subjective or debatable, be cautious. You don’t want audience members to witness another audience member speculating or arguing with you. Opinion questions can lead to battles between you and the questioner; you might embarrass them, become embarrassed yourself, or otherwise lose audience rapport. Try to make each audience member “right” by saying briefly that the answer to that question has been debated by experts, and quickly move on to the next questioner.

12 steps to enhance your Q&A session

  • As part of your rehearsal, anticipate possible questions (silly, difficult, long-winded, etc.). Be prepared to answer questions you would never want to hear!
  • Listen carefully to each question, looking directly at the questioner and nodding your head a bit. Allow the questioner to finish before answering.
  • Restate or paraphrase each question. This clarifies the question in your mind, gives you time to think before you answer, and ensures that the whole audience hears and understands the question. Check with the questioner to make sure that you have understood.
  • Share your answer with the whole audience. While answering, make eye contact with everyone, instead of directing your comments to the questioner.
  • Thank people for their questions, especially low-voiced questioners.
  • Limit your answers to about 30 seconds and no more than one minute, in the case of more complex answers. Keep your answers concise and to the point, and encourage questions.
  • Refer to the central theme or main points of the presentation as you answer. Avoid one-word answers and yes/no answers; elaborate and restate your objectives.
  • If you don’t understand a question, be gentle. Don’t say, “I don’t understand you.” Find a delicate way to get clarity on the question.
  • If you have trouble hearing the question, do not ask the questioner to speak more loudly. Move closer to the speaker if possible, or find another way to hear.
  • Control the room. Never put a question “up for grabs” to the audience, and don’t ask the audience what they think about a question or answer.You will risk losing your audience if you do.
  • When you don’t know the answer to a question, say, “I don’t know.” Trying to “wing” the answer can be dangerous. Instead, say something like, “I really don’t have that information with me, but I will be happy to get it for you later.” Then move on to the next question.
  • When you hear a question that you hate being asked, smile at the audience and say, “I’m glad you asked that question.” Be bright and confident as you answer.

Maintaining control in front of your audience will enhance your projection of gravitas. You can do this by concluding your talk after the Q&A session ends. This will help ensure that you can easily put a limit on the Q&A session, and that your final call to action and inspirational closing remarks are the last things your audience will hear.

Follow these strategies, and your Q&A session will deepen the experience for your audience and enhance your professional credibility.

Maria Guida works with leaders who want to develop power speaking skills to be more persuasive, productive and profitable. With her experience as an actor on Broadway, TV and film (working with Paul Newman, James Earl Jones and Kevin Kline), she works with executives to enhance their leadership presence and credibility and help them speak with passion, persuasion and pizzazz. Maria’s clients include executives at American Express, PricewaterhouseCoopers, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & Johnson. (Maria can be reached at maria@successfulspeakerinc.com or at 718-884-2282. Please visit www.successfulspeakerinc.com)