From the June 2014 GPS Speaking Tips newsletter, free monthly tips on public speaking and presentation skills. Click here to sign up.
This month’s newsletter topic is by special request from a young woman who attended one of my workshops in Washington, DC earlier this month. She asked if I had some tips on how to answer questions in front of a crowd, in preparation for her speaking engagement later this month. Happy to help!
Sometimes giving a speech is the easy part: you stand up, give your speech, and go home.
Taking questions from an audience is much harder. You have to prepare for what you want to say as well as what you might have to say. If you’re unprepared, it can feel like a public cross-examination.
Luckily, there are solid tools and techniques for preparing for Q+A, whether you’re speaking in front of a friendly or hostile crowd.
Follow these 10 steps before, during and after to take control of Q+A:
1. Whenever possible, always plan to take questions. Public speaking is about building a relationship with your audience, and we do that through dialogue more than lecture. If you are on a tight deadline, prepare to invite “clarifying” questions during the speech and ask people to hold the rest of their questions until the end.
2. Anticipate questions in advance, especially the ones you really hope no one asks. If you truly know your subject, you can easily think up potential questions. Prepare one or two bullet-point answers for each question and have them readily accessible. If yours is a controversial subject, role play with a colleague who can simulate the opposition. Reduce your nervousness by preparing answers to the questions you fear the most.
3. Research your subject inside and out, especially any new developments or controversies in your field which people might question. If there was a recent article in The Washington Post about your subject, someone could easily ask your thoughts on it during the Q+A session.
4. Make a list of your 3 main points and find ways to come back to those main points in your answers. “To answer your question, yes that is something I’m concerned about, which is why I’ve been focusing so much on the importance of [main point #1]…”
5. When someone asks you a question, listen to the entire question, repeat it out loud, and pause before responding. This gives you time to think of your answer. No need to jump right in; nod thoughtfully and take your time.
6. When you answer a question, address your answer to the entire audience, not just to the speaker. And if you don’t want the speaker to ask a follow-up question, look at a different part of the room when you ask for more questions. This helps you keep control of the room.
7. Build bridges. When a question strays too far from your main point or delves into a sensitive area, use bridging phrases to steer the conversation in a better direction.
- Actually, I don’t think that is the underlying issue, what we’re really talking about is…
- Perhaps, but it really points to a larger issue, which is…
- Yes, and I think that’s intimately tied to my earlier point that…
8. Never end with the last question. Always close with a clear and confident restatement of your main point(s). That way, your audience leaves the room with your main point in their mind, not the last random, unrelated question or comment.
9. Stick around. Be available to people after the session in case they want to ask further questions.
10. Follow up. If during the Q+A session you offer to follow up with someone, take their business card and follow up within a week. Remember, you are building a relationship with the audience, and your follow up is the next step in that relationship.
Taking questions in front of an audience is challenging, but if you prepare for it just as you would the speech itself, then you will find it to be a powerful tool for connecting with an audience and an excellent way to reinforce your main message.
Hi Allison: Greetings from Boston. Your point 8 is very interesting: Never end with the last question. Sounds like an excellent idea and it never occurred to me. To pull it off would require some planning as the last question approaches. Will definitely try to do this the next time I present.
Alex, great to hear from you! Yes, it takes a little advanced planning, probably best to write out the post-Q+A concluding sentence when you draft the opening and closing sentences overall. Very important in your line of work especially! Warm Regards, Allison