The Great Q&A Dilemma

I was in China on business last year and discovered that one of their sporting passions in table tennis. I was amazed at how quick the players are batting the ball backwards and forwards without taking their eye off the game.

That’s exactly how you should run a Q&A session. Here’s lots of tips and ideas for doing so, in no particular order.

  • However, a Q&A should follow an order. Never at the end, mostly just before the end so you can finish on your planned high. I’ve staggered my Q&As before when I’ve been speaking for a length of time. I’ve even allowed questions as we go but only for small groups. Whatever you decide, let the audience know how you want to play it.
  • Plan and prepare your Q&A. Naturally if you know your topic, then you should be able to answer most questions. Prepare the ten questions that if they were asked, you’d wobble. Research the answers, dig deeper for some variety in the answers and when they come up, which they will, you can answer them in various ways. Another advantage of this, which I’ve taken, is to put them on a slide, entitle then FAQs, in case you get no questions from the audience, and that embarrassing silence predominates the room.
  • Occasionally I’ve written down some questions on index card and given them out during coffee before my presentation. I’ve trusted the people to ask the questions, if no one else volunteers with the first question. You’ll find that once a few questions have been asked, others will organically follow.
  • Keep your answers short, stop answering earlier than you normally would. These are not mini presentations. Move onto the next question. “Next question”. Give the audience the gift of several questions rather than one long winded one.
  • If the questioner is dragging the question out. Many do, because they’re in front of their peers and want to impress. With a smile state “Sir, can we have your question?” You’ll get away with it if you smile.
  • Likewise if the question is not a question, a statement of how brilliant they are, then just say that’s not a question. We can catch up on that over lunch. “Next question please”
  • Re-state the question. This helps others to hear it in the first place in a large room but it also allows you to summarise the question to the core.
  • Never ever say “that’s a great question”. Just don’t do it. Not only is it irritating but how better must the next question be to beat that question. And the next one, and the one after that, they can’t all be great questions. If you want to acknowledge the question, use “that’s an interesting angle”, “that’s a fair question” or something like that.
  • Do hand around afterwards to answer questions. “I’ll be at the back afterwards or in the bar, if anyone wants to ask me any questions, happy to answer them.
  • Maintain eye contact with the whole audience as you answer the question and return yoru gaze to the questioner as you finish. Don’t ask if that answers the question. Invariably you get a second question from the same person. This really irritates the audience believe me. So invite your new friend to join you afterwards for a one on one. Instead just raise yoru eyes at them with a light tilt of the head to indicate that’s your answer. “Next question please”.
  • If you don’t know the answer, you could relay it to the group to answer or an individual. This can be a dangerous tactic especially if you do it with every question. There’s always someone hooked to google, swing it to them if it’s googleable and what question isn’t these days. Better still assert that you need to think that question through to give you a full considered answer and talk to them afterwards. You could have your email address on the final slide to enable them to photo it and come back to you afterwards.
  • If you’re part of a panel and I’ve been on several, you’ll live or die by the ability of the moderator. The worse ones just ask every member of their panel an answer to every question. This is tedious, and we start repeating each other. If you’re able to, work with the moderator beforehand to ensure they know each of your expertise areas. If not be brave enough to say my answer was covered by Shelley on the panel.
  • Instead of asking for questions in the usual manner, put a hashtag up early and encourage the audience to tweet questions as you go. At various intervals, you can check for questions on your twitter feed. People are more inclined to ask this way, and it does give a use for the ubiquitous smartphone usage.
  • I ran a session recently, ironically on presentation skills and we ran it purely as a Q&A. For 45 minutes as well. It was excitingly interactive. To allow it to swing along nicely, I prepared a couple of dozen questions on index cards, and when there was a lull in the questions, I walked up to an audience member and asked them to pick a card and read out the question. It worked exceptionally well.

Finally, try not to succumb to the “Expert Disease”. This appears later in life when your expertise reaches such a level that you start to assume everyone else has a similar amount of knowledge. This is a mistake. So do dumb down your answers. It takes an expert to explain something complex simply. It takes a dummy to explain something simple complexly.