The fear of making a mistake…

While most people dread the Question & Answer session at the end of a presentation I believe it is an incredible opportunity to cement and positively re-position your ideas.

The accept purpose of the Q. & A. is to raise questions, problems or concerns and to clear the air. Rarely should you want to prevent people from participating in fact getting people to speak up is much more important.

There are times when you want to keep tight control, e.g., in dealing with the media or a difficult audience, even then you want to give the participants a hearing and the opportunity to speak.

For most business presentations, this is an opportunity to get out any differences while you have a chance to evaluate them and to incorporate or discard them. Skillful handling of questions and concerns in front of the group will prevent undermining behind the scenes later. By preparing in advance you can use this opportunity to reinforce and create acceptance of your ideas. Your skill of handling questions coolly with charm will go a long way to creating the impression “you are a leader who is cool under fire”.

Preparation – Play the “devils” advocate, make a list of every conceivable question and answer ahead of time. Then ask someone to drill you and come up with his or her own questions. Remember most people are not asking questions to prove you wrong, what they need is clarification or more information – the reasons why you said what you did.

Starting Effectively – After the last point in the speech, the audience will need time to absorb your last idea and to review the speech. Give them whatever time they need to relax and start thinking. If something isn’t forthcoming after a suitable wait, you can begin to encourage people. Suggest a question for them, “Sometimes I’m asked….”  Then answer your own question briefly.

Focus – Maintain eye contact and listen attentively to the end of the question. This shows respect and acknowledges to questioners your support and concern for their point-of-view. You need to pay attention to understand the whole question and catch possible underlying assertions that need support or refutation. Do not stop listening until the final punctuation, it easy to fall into the trap of thinking “yes I know this” and miss something critical.

Once the questioner is finished, take your time and begin the answer, rushing is a potential trap. After the first few words, take the focus back out to the audience so that they are included again as part of the group.  This reasserts your control of the floor.

When Handling Questions – Keep your major idea foremost in your mind while answering questions so that you are not trapped into going of into a tangent, winning individual points but risking your original objective.

Never say ‘good question” it is patronizing and opens a competition to ask the really “good question”. Keep your answers short and on track. If you don’t understand the question, admit it, saying, “I’m sorry.  I don’t understand the question.” Do not say, “Your question is unclear.” Rephrase questions that are unclear and rambling. Repeat each question only if the audience cannot hear it. If you don’t know the answer, admit it. Do not try to BS the answer.

Move around the audience when accepting questions so that the total audience is involved. Before listeners will accept your argument, they will want acknowledgment of their concerns. Remember that evidence, not opinion, is what persuades an audience.

At the end of the Q/A  – Make certain that you present the last word on the subject.  At the end of the session, make sure to have an appropriate closing: a summary, request for action, request for commitment, or restatement of the group’s agreement. It is important to remember, the first and the last comments made receive the audience’s highest level of attention.