How to Ace Your Next Q&A: A Four-Part Series

Early on in my career, I would often spend days and weeks carefully crafting my presentations but failing to prepare as adequately for the audience’s questions, comments, or opposing points of view. It was a lousy formula for success, as just one wobbly, defensive, or argumentative response could have easily derailed an otherwise terrific presentation.

And, one day, one nearly did.

Before we get into that … in the years since, I have learned (and taught others) how to prepare for and respond to comments and questions with competence and grace. Poised responses send an important signal to your audience that you’re the right person to lead an organization, advocate for your cause, or execute whatever initiative you’ve presented.

Managing Your Q&A

With this post, we launch a four-part series that will teach you how to better manage your Q&A, deliver crisp, on-message responses on the fly, and stay on track when tough comments and questions start coming your way. These have worked for me and they can work for you. Speaking of which, here’s that story:

Many, many years ago, I was invited to a large event space on a secure military base to train a group of 100 senior-level active duty officials. As I stepped to the front of the room, I stared out at seemingly endless rows of stone-faced generals, who were wearing impressive uniforms dotted with medal ribbons representing significant achievement. I felt like a nervous, young recruit reporting for his first day of duty.

Just two minutes into my talk – well before I had hit my stride – one of the generals interjected with the type of objection that haunts nightmares: “Is that really right? I don’t think you’re accurate.” Then, she faced the rest of the room and explained – in detail – why she considered my opening point to be flawed.

As she spoke, my adrenaline – already surging – sent my heart racing even faster. I feared her contrarian comment would undermine my credibility for the remainder of the workshop. My thoughts filled with self-doubt (and more than a few four-letter words). I was panicking.

But as profound as my physiological reaction was, I was fortunate to remember to modify my inner monologue. I forced myself to change my “four-letter word” reaction to a kinder one: “Okay, I can handle this.” Finally, I reminded myself of two words that ultimately allowed me to deliver an effective response: “Be open.”

I walked ever so slightly in her direction and gave her my full attention. When she finished and the eyes of the room turned to gauge my reaction, I thanked her. Then, I turned to the rest of the group and said, “I know that other people in this room probably have a similar view, so I’m glad she brought that up. Let’s talk about that.” My open and non-defensive reaction changed the mood in the room, deflated the tension that built up during her comment, and enhanced my credibility with the audience for the rest of the day.

Despite the fact that I escaped that challenging moment unscathed, the truth is I got lucky. It could have easily gone the other way. That close call taught me to fight the temptation to view questions or comments as unwanted interruptions and, instead, to regard them as valuable opportunities to strengthen your bond with your audience.

When you drop defensiveness, you can truly listen and focus on creating an environment in which issues and differences can be discussed openly and thoughtfully. Only then can you truly hear what your audience is saying.

Their questions will help you understand which:

  • misperceptions need to be addressed.
  • gaps in their knowledge need to be filled.
  • points of resistance must be overcome to land a successful call to action.

Your answers, in turn, will allow you to:

  • better align your responses with their specific concerns.
  • clear up confusion.
  • address lingering doubt or skepticism.
  • make real-time adjustments to ensure your audience remains on your side.

Don’t fret if you fear the unpredictability of the audience Q&A or don’t “think quickly on your feet.” With preparation and practice, the practical and effective strategies and techniques of this four-part series will be there for you, whenever you need them.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this series during the next four weeks: