It was one of my first presentations, and though it wasn’t my best, it wasn’t horrible. That is, until they opened it up for questions.
Though it only lasted about 10 minutes, that single Q&A session took 10 years off my life. Everything that could have gone wrong, did. I walked out of that presentation embarrassed, frustrated, and most importantly, determined never to make those mistakes again.
An interactive Q&A period following a presentation is common practice. However, it can be detrimental if it’s not handled correctly. Whether you’re presenting in a board room or at a luncheon, here are three ways a Q&A session can go sour—and how to handle it like a pro.
1. They Ask a Bad Question
I know your first grade teacher told you there are no stupid questions, but unless you’re talking to a room of first graders, this old adage doesn’t hold up.
Q&A sessions frequently get thrown off track by bad questions. Sometimes, the question is unrelated to the overall topic. Sometimes, it’s a question so specific, the answer is only relevant to the person asking it. And sometimes, the question is so long and rambling, it’s hard to know what the person is actually asking. Worst of all, some questions are asked with the intention of stumping the presenter.
It’s what you, the presenter, does about the bad question that matters most.
In this scenario, restate the bad question, but not verbatim. Instead, paraphrase it in a way that honors the asker and allows you to give an answer that will keep the discussion on track.
Lastly, remember that at the root of many bad questions is not necessarily the desire for an answer, but rather an audience member’s desire to be heard.
2. You Don’t Have the Answer
This is the main reason my Q&A went so badly that day. A woman in the back of the room stood up and asked a question to which I didn’t have an answer. I’m not even sure I understood the question.
What I wish I would have done was:
- Confidently asked her to repeat the question.
- If I still didn’t know the answer, tell her I didn’t know the answer.
Instead, I pretended I understood what she asked and then talked nervously in circles for what felt like a lifetime. After several minutes of mumbling, I tried to cover up my incompetence by saying, “Did that answer your question?” I was hoping she’d nod and smile and spare me further misery, but alas, her questions continued.
This disaster was my fault and could have been avoided entirely.
Should someone ask you a question you don’t know the answer to, honesty is the best policy. Thank them for their question, apologize that you can’t give them the answer at this time, and as a bonus, offer to find the answer and follow up with them once you have it.
3. They Offer a Never-Ending Question
One of the greatest enemies to a Q&A session is the never-ending-line-of-questioning. The scenario looks like this:
- The person asks a question.
- You give a satisfactory answer.
- But the person wants more and asks another question.
- You repeat your answer and maybe add in something additional.
- You attempt to move on but the person refuses to let it go and keeps asking for more.
Engaging in this back and forth is appropriate if the asker simply needs clarification on your initial answer. However, if the exchange pursues for more than one volley, your presentation is being hijacked.
In this scenario, if they ask again and you clarify, your next sentence should be, “I’m happy to discuss this with you personally afterwards.” This response stops the volley without disrespecting what might be genuine curiosity.
While memories of that first crash-and-burn Q&A still haunt me, now that I know how to handle it, I (usually) enjoy Q&A sessions. I find audience questions often reveal answers I didn’t know I had and give audience members insights they’re excited to hear.
This article was originally published on Inc. It has been republished here with permission.
Photo of person raising hand courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.