Building rich question and answer sessions into your talk fundamentally changes the dynamic between you and the audience — in a good way. Q&A builds trust and rapport and can reveal opportunities to expand, deepen, or clarify your message in ways you’d never imagined. It can also grow your network and plant the seed for future collaborations and speaking opportunities.

Despite the fact that it’s such a critical part of the presentation, we often spend so much time practicing the actual talk that we completely overlook the Q&A. So how do we prepare? Here are our top three ways to plan for and foster a meaningful Q&A session that helps you bond with your audience.

Anticipate questions and practice answers

Some of us dread Q&A sessions. Usually because we’re worried about being caught off guard. What if someone asks a question that feels hostile or aggressive? What if someone monopolizes the session? And the most dreaded: What if someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to?

If any of this sounds familiar: 1. You’re in good company and 2. We can easily help mitigate these fears by coming up with a list of questions that the audience might ask.

First, get a sheet of paper (or post-its) and a pen and brainstorm as many possible questions as you can come up with. Shoot for at least 20 and don’t edit. If it pops into your mind, write it down.

Next, go through the process of answering each one—ideally with a colleague or friend who can role play an audience member. In case any of them fall into the categories above (questions you don’t know the answer to, aggressive questions, questions you didn’t understand, etc.) we’ve put together some helpful tips to get you ready:

Questions that you don’t know the answer to: In practice, this one is super easy—all we’re going to do is acknowledge that we don’t know the answer and then commit to finding it. This is a great opportunity to take an email address or a phone number from the audience member and

So why do we dread this scenario? Simple: our ego. We’re absolutely terrified of losing credibility. But let’s think about this for a minute: picture your most beloved, inspiring thought-leader. Now, imagine you’ve asked them a question and they look at you and, with confidence, say “I don’t know the answer to that but I’ll find out and follow-up with you. Hang back after we’re done and I’ll get your contact info.”  How do you feel? More than likely, PUMPED that you’re going to get a chance to speak with them one-on-one after the talk.

Hostile or aggressive questions: Luckily, this one is rare. But, when it does happen, it can be extremely difficult. The first step in your response strategy is not to get flustered. Remember, the success of your presentation rides on your ability to remain calm and confident. The mindset shift that’s most helpful for accomplishing this is empathizing with the idea that most people just need to be heard.

As soon as the question has been asked, take a breath and choose your response tactic carefully. You don’t have to rush and you can approach your response is a couple of different ways: follow-up with a request for clarification, address the aggression outright and extend an opportunity to meet after the talk, or touch on something you can agree with and then use that to spin off a response that continues to bring the audience in your story.

Steve Jobs executes this last approach masterfully at the 1997 World Wide Developer’s Conference. Let’s take a look:

Questions you don’t understand:  It’s 100% normal to not fully understand a question the first time it’s asked. The best way to handle to it is to ask the speaker to restate or reframe it.  Here are a handful of example responses:

  • Sorry, I didn’t understand the question. Would you mind repeating it?
  • I didn’t catch exactly what you’re asking, is there a different way you could frame the question?
  • Sorry, I didn’t catch the second half of your question. Could you repeat it?
  • I’m not exactly sure I understand your question. Are you asking if/whether…?

Remember, perfect preparation is not possible, BUT role-playing through a practice Q&A session is one of the most helpful tools you can employ for feeling more confident.

Encourage Questions

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Collect Questions in Advance

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From the audience’s perspective, the Q&A can be the most valuable part of your presentation. It provides the opportunity to better understand your audience and underscores your message in a way that is relevant and meaningful to your listeners.