By Emma Serlin
September 14, 2019

You’ve finished your presentation and the audience is applauding loudly. You feel a swell of adrenalin and know you’ve done a great job – all that practise was worth it. But now it’s time for the audience Q & A. Anybody could ask you anything – everything that happens next is a complete unknown. How can you make sure you give your best?

Whether you’re speaking at a conference, pitching to investors or presenting to colleagues, let’s have a look at some of the ways you can prepare for the Q&A to make sure there’s no awkward moments or unwelcome surprises...

Preparing for your Q&A - Focus and get yourself in the zone

First, notice what’s going on in your head. Are you in conflict mode, expecting an attack? If so, try and gently sweep away any thoughts that make you feel like you’re getting ready for battle and replace them with a new perspective. You’re the expert and people want to know your opinion. The fact that they are asking a question means they are engaged and that’s a great sign!

Now use some of our techniques to help reduce presentation anxiety. Consciously relax your body, plant your feet hip-width apart for balance, take deep breaths and stay centred. It’s amazing how giving the impression of physical strength puts you in a better place mentally to deal with anything. 

If you get a question that feels challenging,  imagine it’s a ball being thrown towards you. You don't want to return it with equal energy, instead, you want to take control of the situation, define the energy, and pace that suits you.  So - instead of batting it back, catch it, hold it for a moment, examine it carefully and then place it on the table and turn to the thrower to respond. There’s no rush to answer quickly, better to pause and formulate a great reply and take back the control Then you call the shots, and trust me, it feels so much better.  If you’re worried you may need a moment to gather your thoughts and defuse a question, try saying “that’s a really great question, thank you.” It will diffuse the energy and give you time to collect your thoughts and formulate a response. Here are 5 handy tips for overcoming presentation nerves.

What unfolds during the Q & A may be different depending on the type of presentation you’re involved with. So, let’s look at a few different scenarios:

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How to handle an audience Q & A at a conference

If you’ve been asked to speak at a conference, the chances are you’re considered to be an expert in your field, otherwise, you wouldn’t have been given the opportunity in the first place. So keep this in mind and remember it’s your time to shine. Take the opportunity to share what you know and even enjoy showing off a little - why not?

The audience isn’t trying to catch you out with tricky questions. They’re there to learn, to further their knowledge on a subject; they’re hungry to find out more of what you know. This is a positive thing - so if you’re nervous, reframe it in your mind rather than focusing on the fear of the unknown.

Make sure you respond positively to any questions that are asked of you, thanking and acknowledging the people asking them. And remember - you’re in control. You don’t need to answer immediately, there’s nothing to stop you jotting down a few words on a piece of paper to help you frame your answer and make your point more succinctly. And never respond aggressively. If you’re not sure about a question, try to take it and say, “what I’m hearing is….” And “my opinion on that is…”

There will always be questions asked that might take you by surprise. Even if you don’t feel confident about your answer, don’t panic. Take your time, answer from a place of honesty and consideration rather than feeling back-footed. Say, “that’s a great question, and a really interesting new angle…”, offer up some of your initial thoughts based on your own experience and say it’s something you’d like to look into more. No-one expects you to be a supercomputer – taking your audience through your thought process and the steps you would take to find out an answer is enlightening in itself. Working on developing vocal charisma will help you to navigate such situations with ease. For more tips, read our guide on handling presentation interruptions.

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Taking questions from potential investors after a pitch

A pitch is a high-pressure situation. It can feel like one wrong answer will make or break an investment offer. As you feel the adrenalin start to course through your veins, what can you do to make sure you’re showing off your business or project idea in its best light?

Firstly, understand that preparation is everything. If you’ve ever watched Dragon’s Den you’ll have seen that the greatest criticism that the dragons level against potential investees is that they don’t know their numbers. Make sure you know yours. Net profits, projections and margins all need to be practised and reeled off confidently when needed.

During questioning take note of how you’re feeling. If you think your business baby is being called into question, it can be hard not to go on the defensive, to tense up and react negatively to what’s being said. Better to pre-empt this feeling, take some deep breaths and pause before offering a calm and gracious response. Remember, potential investors will be assessing you as a person as much as the viability of your business. They will want to know whether you're a good listener,  how you respond under pressure, how you deal with difficult situations and ultimately whether you, and not just your business, are a safe bet. Being seen as a good listener is one of 6 top skills all the best entrepreneurs share.

If you’re faced with a question you’re not sure about, resist the urge to allow your fight or flight mechanism to take over and go on the attack. Don’t apologise, but be honest. Thank the questioner for bringing it to your attention and explain that you’ve been concentrating elsewhere. Make sure you finish your point with a downward tone rather than an upward inflection. This reflects closure and suggests subtly to the panel that you’d like to move on.

Importantly, make sure you end warmly and positively. It will be these final moments that stick in the head of the investors. Want more tips? Here are 5 communication tools for nailing your next pitch.

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Answering difficult questions in a presentation to colleagues

A work presentation can be nerve-wracking for a different reason. Surrounded by people you know, perhaps even those more senior than you, it can feel that there is immense pressure to perform well. In many ways there is more of an emotional investment here than when you’re facing a room full of strangers – after all, with strangers, you can walk away and never see them again. And while things may feel a little less formal, it’s still important from a career perspective that you show what you know.

If the questions that come your way are easy, then that’s great. Make sure you still explain clearly, don’t make assumptions about what people know already, but be succinct. The tendency when we get nervous and we’re talking about something we know well, is to quickly rattle the answer off without allowing the listener to take it in. It may feel counterintuitive, but brevity can allow you to speak less whilst actually saying more.

If you receive questions that are more challenging, then be honest, acknowledge whether it’s the case that you don’t know, or that you can’t say. And the beauty of a workplace Q & A is that you can always follow up on the answers to any questions via email later.

Keep in mind that your colleagues generally want to see you succeed, they’re not out to get you. So try to stay positive and refrain from taking the questioning personally. For more helpful tips, read '7 presentation tools that will wow your colleagues'.

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Lessons from a young politician

A few years ago, Jeremy Paxman was interviewing a young female politician. He was looking for a response about when a decision took place. He was asking, “when was xxx done?”  and “when were you told?” She tried to dodge the question by going on the attack and making him look small.

Of course, this was like a red rag to a bull. Paxman went for her, picking up her words and not letting her off the hook. She refused to answer again, saying she couldn’t remember. She was clearly lying by this point and probably felt uncomfortable.

Eventually, she calmed down, took a breath and started to deal with the questioning in the way she should have done in the first place. “I’m not going to be able to give you an answer to that,” she said in a strong, clear voice. Paxman backed off knowing the line of questioning was going nowhere.

The moral of this story is, if you try to deflect questions, or keep putting someone down, they will be encouraged to continue in the attack. Instead, stick to your guns and be authentic. If you don’t feel comfortable answering a question, say: “I understand it’s important to you, but I can’t answer that now. What I can tell you is…” Use a downward inflection at the end of your statement to signal clearly that the matter is closed.

Key takeaways

Question and answer sessions can be nerve-wracking, whether you’re standing in front of 200 strangers or ten colleagues.

But instead of focusing on the unknown as a nerve-wracking challenge fraught with potential dangers, reframe the experience as a chance to show your audience your expertise and to connect with them in a fresh, honest and spontaneous way. Keep your key points firmly in your head and use these to steer your answers. Position yourself so the audience can see you’re open and not defensive. Keep your arms uncrossed and make eye contact with anyone who wants to ask you a question. And above all, be genuine, defusing difficult lines of questioning by being honest about what you can and can’t say. Remember, this can be your time to shine.

Next, read our Ultimate Guide to public speaking and presenting, packed with simple and actionable tools you can use today to improve your communication.

Need more hands-on help?  Learn about our Effective Communication courses – perfect to help you iron out any issues and get you speaking with confidence.

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