Do you enjoy or dread taking questions from your audience?
If you enjoy it, you probably value the interaction, the immediate feedback, and the opportunity to expand upon your content. If you dread it, you may worry about getting stumped by a curve-ball, managing personalities and emotions, or losing control of the process. How you feel about taking questions may be determined somewhat by your DiSC profile; if your style is “i” you may be open to the give-and-take of Q&A sessions, while “D’s” may view them as challenges to their authority. Regardless of your natural tendency, it helps to step back and ask what’s really going in Q&A exchanges, so you can make them beneficial for everyone involved.
When someone asks you a question—whether at the end of your presentation or during—it immediately changes the nature of your relationship with the audience. It also changes your role. You suddenly shift from someone delivering information to someone who is managing interaction and discussion—and that requires you to draw upon your facilitation skills. The following four-step process for fielding questions can help you manage the shift.
The 4-step process
First, a few key principles. Whenever you entertain questions, it’s important to remember:
- Your responsibility is to the entire group even though just one person is asking the question.
- Your goal is not to simply answer questions, but to draw links between the questions and your content.
- Your use of eye contact is critical to managing this process.
Step one: FOCUS AND LISTEN
Give your full attention to the person asking the question and listen carefully to the question.
- Establish and keep eye contact with the questioner.
- Listen to the entire question before beginning your response.
- Make sure you’re confident in your understanding of the question. If you need to, ask for clarification.
Step two: REPEAT, REFRAME, REFOCUS OR REGROUP
This is the all-important step between hearing the question and responding to it. It starts with pausing and shifting your eye contact back to the entire group as you choose from among these options.
- Repeat: If the audience is large, the acoustics are poor, or the question is complex, repeat or rephrase the question for focus and clarity, and so everyone can hear.
- Reframe: Pull focus back to the key messages of your presentation. Does the question resonate with your content? Point out that link as you answer: “Your question is a great example of the importance of…,” or “You remember the exercise we started with? That was designed to surface this very type of question…”
- Refocus: If the question is multi-layered or complex (i.e., three questions in one, or requiring more time than you can give), focus on what is answerable: “I’d love to address all aspects of this question, but in the interest of time—and because I know other people have questions—let me answer your first point…and we can address the others at the end.”
- Regroup: If the question is controversial, off-topic, or unanswerable, you may need to identify the issue, place it in the “parking lot,” and either move to another question or back to your presentation. “That’s a little off-topic. Let’s talk about it at break.” Or “I understand your frustration with the new policy. Let me give a bit more of the rationale behind it and we’ll see if that might help.”
Step three: ANSWER
When you answer a question, you are returning to your role as presenter. So, keep your eye contact on others in the audience (fighting your desire to look only at the questioner) and answer the question as simply and concisely as you can.
- Be honest. If you don’t have the answer or are unsure, admit it, but include a next step. Offer to get the answer and provide it to your questioner.
Step four: SHIFT FOCUS
If Q&A is happening at the end of your presentation, you need to keep things moving forward and not get bogged down with one questioner. If questions come in the middle of your presentation, you need to return to your content and the agenda. So Step Four is where you shift focus to where you need things to go.
- To focus on the next question, end your answer with your eyes focused on someone else in the audience. Check back with the original questioner only if you want or need to. If you return your focus to the questioner, you’re giving a nonverbal invitation for another question from that person—and your responsibility is to the group, not to individuals.
- To return to your presentation or agenda, provide a clear transition: “Thanks for raising that question. You’ll see in this next section how the material also helps answer your concerns …”
If leading a Q&A session
When questions occur during your presentation, you need to use Step Two wisely so you can respond and transition back to your content or agenda. If you prefer to hold questions until the end (and your audience allows you to, which is not always the case!) remember these additional tips:
- Announce the Q&A session early in your time with the audience. This accomplishes two things: (1) Your audience is reassured that they will get to ask their questions and (2) your audience is encouraged to start thinking of questions.
- As the Q&A session begins, let your audience know how much time you have: “We have about fifteen minutes for your questions.”
- Don’t end the Q&A session abruptly. Let the audience know: “We have time for two or three more questions.”
- When you have finished answering questions, repeat the main theme or key messages of your content, or repeat your call to action. This technique will bring closure to the process and reinforce your messages. Save your concluding words (and perhaps your last slides) for after the Q&A session.
In future posts, I’ll talk about how to manage challenging types of questions (or questioners) and how to encourage your audience to engage in the Q&A process.
John Capecci of Capecci Communications (Minneapolis) is a trainer and consultant who offers personal coaching, group workshops, and webinars on communication effectiveness.