You’re ready for the big day. You have your best content all set to go, well-designed visuals, and a plan for successful delivery including how to engage your audience. You’ve practiced in the mirror, on your family, and on your pets, and they have all given you the go-ahead for your presentation. The night before, however, you wake up at 3:17am in a cold sweat thinking, “How will I handle the Q&A?” 

Navigating questions and answers during your presentation can be daunting if you’re not prepared for them. But how can you prepare for the unknown? Go back to sleep…you CAN be ready for this key component of your presentation.

Image credit: via Flickr

Image credit: via Flickr

Presentations come in all shapes and sizes, from a 5-6 minute Ignite or Pecha Kucha, to a 15-20 minute TED talk, an hour long keynote, a sales pitch, market report, research presentation, webinar, professional development workshop, or a college course. And there are certainly a lot more. WIth that in mind, you’ll have to tailor these answers to the specific context and characteristics of your presentation.

These may be some of YOUR questions to which I offer some answers:

How much time should I leave for Q&A?

You may not like this answer, but it depends. Here are some questions for consideration:

How much time are you comfortable leaving? Are you prepared with additional material should there be few or no questions? Are you prepared to cut off questions with a plan to answer them later (e.g. by offering to stay after the presentation, or be contacted via email) if time runs out?

Image credit: Rabih via Flickr

Image credit: Rabih via Flickr

What if too many people ask questions and time runs out?

If time runs out and there are more questions, that’s often a good thing! It can mean people are engaged and interested in your topic. The bad news is it can also mean that you didn’t explain something well, or that you didn’t cover the content they were looking for. Of course, if you’re an optimist, you may see this as an opportunity to hone your craft and refine your content for future iterations of your presentation.

What if no one asks a question?

Image credit: Oliver Tacke via Flickr

Image credit: Oliver Tacke via Flickr

You can use one of three strategies here:

1.) Say “thank you” and close your presentation early. For some audiences, this will be a welcome little gift of time. Be cautious, however, that you won’t disappoint your host or client or be in breach of contract by ending early. Best to check out this possibility ahead of time. If you do end early, offer to stay in the room at least until the end of the original time. This will allow individuals the opportunity to ask questions of you in a less threatening and more private environment.

2.) Be prepared with additional content to offer for the remaining time. This might include sharing and answering questions previous audiences have asked – Ex. “I’m often asked about…and this is what I have to say about that…”

3.) Pose one or more questions to the audience to stimulate discussion or even catalyze questions from them.

What if someone asks a question I can’t answer?

Be honest! Acknowledge that a question may be outside of your scope of work or specific area of expertise. Audiences appreciate humility and it while it may seem counterintuitive, it can actually boost credibility. Offer resources for the questioner  – books, websites, or people – to find out the answer, or better yet, offer to research the answer yourself and contact the questioner at a later time.

Image credit: cielleandlacey charron and… via Flickr

Image credit: cielleandlacey charron and… via Flickr

What if I don’t understand the question?

Again, be honest! Ask the questioner to explain, rephrase, or provide an example to clarify. If that doesn’t work, take responsibility for not understanding (i.e. “Maybe it’s me and I’m just not getting it…”) and ask if anyone in the audience can answer. Of course, this takes a great deal of confidence and poise. In many cases, even before you do this, another audience member may attempt to rephrase for the original questioner.

Should I ask people to save their questions for the end?

Image credit: Nadi0 via Flickr

Image credit: Nadi0 via Flickr

Unless you are giving a TED Talk, keynote, or timed presentation where it would be inappropriate to stop and answer questions, let people ask questions when they have them to the extent that you can. Often, and especially in a professional development or workshop environment, people will have questions about something you just said. They may not remember these questions at the end of the session, or, more likely, they need to know the answer to the question so that they can continue to learn with with you. If you don’t take the time to answer clarifying questions, you risk losing some audience members who may become frustrated and shut down if they are not understanding the content.

Do you have any other advice, Sheila?

OK, you probably didn’t wake up with this question, but it’s my blog and I’ll share if I want to.

Look at questions as a gift – an opportunity to improve future presentations. After all, it’s a free needs assessment of your audience! They’re telling you exactly what they need to learn from you, what wasn’t clear, or what wasn’t covered. For this reason, ask someone ahead of time (I usually seek out the person who is hosting me) to write down audience questions and give them to you at the end. I typically walk away from presentations not remembering all the questions I was asked. Use these written questions to refine your presentation for next time.

What other questions might a presenter have about the Q&A? Please add them in the comments.