Effective Ways to Manage Your Audience Q&A
Young children are some of the most relentless interrogators you will come across. One question leads to another to another and another, until, after intense mental fatigue has set in, you simply utter, “Because.”
As a public speaker, you don’t have that option during your presentation’s question and answer session. Nor should you need it. Effective public speakers put as much attention into how to manage their audience Q&A as they do their presentation.
The planning begins with a fundamental question of your own: Are you going to conduct an audience Q&A?
Manage Your Audience Q&A
Of course, you don’t have to take any questions. As we discuss in our public speaking classes, not every presentation calls for one, such as a large keynote address. And, an audience Q&A does introduce unpredictability, which can be an unnerving situation for a speaker who has navigated deftly through the preceding presentation.
Still, the audience Q&A session can provide some of the more memorable and energetic moments of your presentation. If you manage your audience Q&A deftly and with care, you potentially gain valuable information:
- Did your messages stick?
- Is your audience concerned about or resistant to your ideas?
- Are they confused?
- Do they need to know more?
The way to manage your audience Q&A is a simple one, really. You must prepare.
What follows are some ways to take questions during your presentations – the when and how. We finish up with tips on how best to respond to them.
When to Take Questions
A large part of your success in how you manage your audience Q&A is in keeping the audience informed about when you address their questions. Make sure you broadcast your approach early in your presentation. Here are a few ways to seek out those queries:
In a trickle – Questions can rise at any time, which makes this method particularly audience-friendly. Before you begin, let your audience know the floor is open. This approach works well for more informal formats, training seminars, or business presentations. If the questions start to crowd out your main points, say you’ll put some off to the end. Make sure, however, you remember to revisit them.
In chunks – After each main point, or section of your talk, ask for questions. This is a great way to engineer a midcourse correction if you discover your main points are failing to land. Don’t stress if there are no questions to be had. You can always ask for questions before your close.
At the end – This option works well with larger audiences or when you are building a sequential or persuasive case with a conclusion or recommendation. You can announce the amount of time available for the question period and give the audience a sense of when you are wrapping it up, i.e., “We have time for two more questions.”
How to Conduct the Q&A
After you have established when you are taking questions, the second part of how to manage your audience Q&A is to let your audience know how they should ask them. You can ask for:
The audience to jump in – This strategy works well with many small groups or during more informal presentations, and is the most common option.
A show of hands – This is the classic method that any school child knows. This approach works well for larger crowds or more “formal” talks.
Written questions – This approach can be effective during larger panel discussions, when an audience is tuning in remotely to your speech, or when the audience already has good sense of your topic. For instance, you are talking to employees as part of a “town hall” type session. These queries can be delivered the old-fashioned way on paper, or you can employ social media platforms that audience members use to post or text their questions. These can be done in advance, during the talk, or at the Q&A session that concludes your talk.
You Have The Answers
The way you manage your audience Q&A involves preparation. One way to make the process less nerve-wracking is to make a list of questions that are likely to be asked. As you think through the answers, find the ways that let you respond while reiterating your message, or main point, of your speech.
Of course, you can’t plan for everything. This is particularly true when those questions start coming. You don’t have to perfect, however. You just need a plan. Here are some tips on how to better manage your role in the exchange:
Draw out Your Audience
Blank stares are better than eyes that are closed, but there’s not much that’s good about either scenario when it comes to your presentation. Say you have asked for questions and none are coming. The audience may just need a climate that encourages interaction.
Here’s an example: Say you have just wrapped up talking to a bunch of teenagers about a new afterschool program that focuses on job skills. You have just asked whether anyone has questions about it. Silence. Here are a couple of things you can do to get the questions rolling:
- Wait. Sometimes, the pause is enough to prompt someone to fill the void. Make sure, however, you span the silence confidently and keep up your gaze with the audience.
- Ask a question of your own. This might work: “I just finished outlining the subjects we plan to cover in the program. How do you think those skills will help you to get the job you want and the money you want to make?”
Strive to Listen
This is more than simply hearing what your audience has to say. An active listener offers undivided attention to better understand what is being said. The results of a recent study suggest that good listening is consistently seen as a two-way dialog. The best responses, in other words, take into consideration what the other person has said. As you listen, try to identify the questioner’s main point. If you begin to formulate your answer too quickly, you might not pick up on a larger issue.
Take Time to Understand
You may encounter a questioner who is difficult to understand or one who asks a vague question. Here are three easy tips to get you back on track:
- Ask for clarification (“I’d like to make sure I understand. Would you please say a bit more?”)
- Give a brief answer and ask if the questioner is willing to stick around until after the talk has ended to continue the conversation.
- Don’t answer until you understand (“Let me restate your question to make sure I’m on the right track. Are you asking me what jobs the program prepares you for?”)
Answer with Intention
The questions you field can be straightforward, challenging, and confounding. Your answers will vary, but there are some constants that should be employed. You should:
Be brief. Generally, keep your answers to about a minute and avoid ambling into topics and messages that stray from your main points or messages.
Be honest. You may not know the answer, and that’s OK. You can always ask for a clarification or elaboration. Or, use the audience as a resource: “The question you ask is a good one. Perhaps there is someone in the audience who has experienced the same challenge and would be willing to share what they have learned.” Or, tell them what you do know. Finally, offer to find out an answer and get back to them. Then, follow up as promised.
Be human. If a highly charged, emotional question comes your way, responding with the correct information is only half of the story. Your response must also account for the audience’s emotional concerns. People in your audience need to feel that you “get it.”
In addition to your spoken message, the audience will pay attention to your body language. Here are some tips on effective body language:
- Give audience members your complete focus, and make sure you face them.
- Stay away from the lectern and roam the room. You don’t have to employ a “talk show-esque” wandering of the aisles, but even a few steps closer to the audience helps build a connection.
- When calling on people who raise a hand, use an open palm to avoid pointing at them. You may not mean to, but when you point, it is a gesture that can be seen as accusatory or aggressive.
It turns out that we are more likely to react and react quickly to negative stimuli, according to neurophysiologist Rick Hanson. Such a natural tendency can set up a difficult cycle. If you react negatively to a negative comment, then the audience might see your negative response and react negatively toward you. Too many negatives!
Here’s an example of how to keep things positive:
Say you are a sales manager and you are talking to a team of employees about a new commission structure. They are concerned it will affect how much they are able to earn on each sale. So, a team member says, “Why did we have to change the structure? It seemed to be working just fine and providing the incentives we needed.”
A less effective response (negative): “You are suggesting we didn’t need to change the old system, am I right? Well, that’s not the case and I am going to tell you why.”
A more effective response (positive): “I understand that you are concerned about the change and the possible impact on your commissions. Let me tell you why we made the change, how it will affect your commissions in the short term, and how the new structure will ultimately benefit your earning potential.”
Avoid a Debate
Unless you want to promote a critic to co-presenter, avoid trading barbs with an audience member intent on a debate. Remember, your job is to manage your audience Q&A. Still, you need to address the question. Here are a few ways to do that:
Turn Away: As you finish answering the questioner, turn your gaze and body toward a different part of the room, and ask what other questions you can answer.
Redirect: If the questioner remains fixed on a topic, suggest that you will answer them at the next break or after the session. Most audiences will appreciate that you tried to answer the question, as well as freed up the floor for additional ones.
Turn to the Audience: If you’re genuinely unsure how much others are concerned by the topic the questioner raised, you might ask your audience if they want to spend more time on the subject by calling for a show of hands. If many go up, you know the inquisitor is onto something. Perhaps, you have not been as clear on a subject as you thought you were. If the hands stay down, then move on gracefully. This is a high-risk strategy, so we might reserve it for more experienced speakers.
Wrapping it up
The way you prepare for and manage your audience Q&A can have a lasting and meaningful effect on your overall presentation. You gain a better understanding of your audience’s concerns and needs. And, the way you address and connect with your audience adds to the picture of how they see you as a presenter.
When you answer challenging (and not-so-challenging) questions with poise and confidence, it sends a message to your audience that you are capable, caring, and competent. That message helps your message resonate with the people who matter most.