One of my favorite cartoons from the New Yorker shows a speaker at a podium with the caption, "I will now fend off questions from the audience." Why does that make me chuckle? Because most of us, when making a presentation, regard the Q&A portion as a war zone. We want to make our presentation (and I realize that "want" may be an overstatement for some) and get the heck out of there without pesky inquiries that threaten to show the holes in our logic, the gaps in our preparation, or the spaces between our areas of expertise.
No matter how much we have prepared, how fluent we sound, or how well the rest of the presentation has gone, when the questions start to come, our anxiety rises while our confidence plummets. And on some level, it makes a lot of sense to be concerned: the Q&A is often the part of the presentation where we have to shift from scripted to extemporaneous speaking. It’s also the section where we find ourselves having to defend or justify points or perspectives that we ourselves may not be entirely educated or convinced about. Furthermore, we also know that among those genuinely curious, well-meaning askers in the group ("What would the six month plan for this look like?"), there may be others who aim to use the Q&A as a game of "Gotcha!" ("Don’t you think you should have taken our budget cuts into consideration when you made this six month plan?"). We find ourselves feeling vulnerable –especially if we believe that there isn’t anything we can do to prevent what we can’t predict.
Indeed, as Nils Bohr, Nobel laureate in physics, commented, "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future." That being said, there are (at least) eight questions that you can and need to ask yourself that will help you enter the Q&A portion of your presentation with greater confidence that you have your bases covered. And if you’re strategic, you will build some of these answers into the presentation itself so that, if the question arises, you can say, "As I mentioned earlier…."
(Wouldn’t that feel great?)
1.What is most important and relevant about my topic for this audience? In other words, you want to think about the WIIFM ("What’s In It For Me?") for this audience, and make sure to address that throughout.
2.How does what I am proposing fit into the bigger picture? Your listeners have their own priorities and obligations, so let them know how what you’re pitching plays well with their goals, projects and plans.
3.How easy can I make this for them? You may think that the idea you’re plugging is a no-brainer. Great – make sure you are very clear in demonstrating the feasibility of turning your idea in action.
4.What’s this going to cost? Show them the money, but also remember that costs extend beyond dollars and cents. Be clear and up front about costs of personnel, energy, time and other valuable resources, and include your perspective on what makes this worth it, or not (if that’s your angle).
5.When will this all happen? Timing is everything. Share as much as you can about when the proposed project will start, will end, and milestones along the way.
6.Who is in charge? If you’re making the presentation, there’s often an assumption that you’re the one carrying out the work. If that’s so, make the case for why you have the competence and credibility to do so. If it’s not you, let the listeners know who is doing what, and why that team is the A-Team.
7.What’s my stake in this? Sure, we all have to make presentations from time to time where we’re not really feeling it, but the more you can let your audience understand not just how much you know but how much you care, what your stake is, and your unique perspective on it, the greater credibility you bring to the presentation.
8.How can I view Q&A as something positive? Call me crazy, but I look forward to the audience’s questions because I believe that their inquiries build trust with me (especially when I handle them well), focus their thinking and mine, guide a rich discussion, lead to better answers than I might have come up with myself, and contribute to shared ownership of the topic or project we’re discussing.
There’s no question that Q&A can be intimidating, that you might have to answer some questions you weren’t prepared for, or didn't want to have to address. But with a few shifts in skill set and mindset, you can use questions to increase your confidence, and ultimately, your credibility.