“I was doing so well, using so much of what we rehearsed, Milo. Then we got to Q&A where it all fell apart!”

Yep.  We hadn’t gotten to that lesson yet.  For all the fear people have of presenting, the hardest time to have control is during Q&A − when you don’t know what you’ll be asked.  I still have to smile when people tell me that presentations make them more nervous than doing Q&A because, after 22 years of speaking at conferences, that’s still the time when I feel the least in control − even though I think I’m pretty good at handling it.

So here’s my list of the six top tips for better Q&As, among the many that I cover in coaching:

1)  Compliment the question, if you possibly can.  Make the audience member feel good about what they asked.  It not only bonds you to that person, but helps others feel safe to raise their hand next.  Something like, “Great question, Terry.  I’m glad someone brought that up.”

2)  Pre-collect.  If possible, you can ask for questions in advance.  You can take much of the stress out of Q&A by announcing that you’ll be answering questions that were emailed to you instead of taking questions that people have on the fly.  And if you fill the Q&A time with that, so be it!  In most cases, people who still have questions can find you later, which might be preferable.

3)  Acknowledge what you don’t know.  If you don’t know the answer to a question, compliment the question and bypass it respectfully.
“Interesting question, Chris. That’s not my area of expertise, so it’s best that I don’t try to answer it, since I might be inaccurate.” 
Other variations:
“We just don’t know the answer to that yet, but I’m curious as well.  I can let you know when I’m informed.”
“I have that information, but not with me.  I’ll email it to you later to be sure I don’t misquote from memory.”

4)  Restate the question to be sure it was heard.   Even if you feel you can answer the question in what we were taught in fourth grade is called a “complete answer,” resist the temptation.  Before answering, restate each question to ensure everyone has heard it correctly.  “Pat wants to know how we can do this within budget. Well, the budget has been…”  Do this from the start, even with loudly spoken questions, so no one will need to yell, “I couldn’t hear that!” when questions are asked at lower volumes.

5)  Don’t make Q&A the last thing you do! This little gem is revolutionary for some people. Q&A is the time when you have the least control; so my alternate recommendation is this:  After you cover your material, tell the audience you are near the end of your presentation but would like to invite questions before your closing thoughts. This gives you the opportunity to end strongly, especially on days when Q&A turns out not to be ideal. And if Q&A went great, your closer will be the cherry on top of the cake.  So many otherwise great speeches end with the phrase, “Well, if there aren’t any more questions, I guess we’ll stop here, so thank you.” That’s weak, after all the work you put into the rest of the presentation!  Instead, conclude with your own final powerful thoughts on your topic.

6)  Skip it!  This is also mind-blowing for some speakers, but it’s a perfectly valid choice not to do Q&A. I frequently opt for that. I’m giving a presentation this week where I told  the organizer,
“I’m trying very hard to get 75 minutes of material into an hour for your folks and know I can do that, but I don’t want to have to cut even further to take questions that may not apply to everyone.  Would it be okay if I just let everyone know that I’m open to questions by e-mail?” 
No one minded, and I get my full hour now.

If you can handle your Q&A with grace, everyone (especially you) will leave feeling better!