When facing an audience for your next talk, you probably won’t have to answer questions ranging from income inequality to why Americans cannot locate the United States on a map, but even so, you should include Q&A prep as an important step in developing your presentation to avoid being caught off guard like a poorly prepared pageant girl, such as Miss South Carolina… such as.
Years ago at the WWDC conference, Steve Jobs fielded a hostile question regarding OpenDoc, a program he terminated soon after his return to Apple in 1996. In addition to canceling the program, most of the team who had worked on it was laid off. His response illustrates a variety of tactics for effective Q&A and shows his mastery of using his moments onstage to not only impart information but also deepen rapport with his audience.
The questioner begins by saying: “Mr. Jobs, you’re a bright and influential man. That said it’s clear on several accounts you don’t know what you’re talking about…”
Jobs picks up the barstool, backs away, and jests with the audience saying, “Here it comes.” His playful use of humor and body language dispels tension and gets the audience laughing.
The audience member continues his question in an antagonistic tone: “I would like, for example, for you to express in clear terms how, say, Java in any of its incarnations expresses the ideas expressed in OpenDoc. And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you can tell us what you personally have been doing for the last seven years.”
Jobs pauses, takes a sip of water, and looks down at the stage thoughtfully. He sits down on a stool and takes a deep breath, indicating it is a tough question. He continues to pause throughout his response, modifying his tone and diction, and it feels sincere – not contrived.
He builds trust with the audience member, acknowledging that his question is valid by saying, “One of the hardest things when you are trying to effect change is that people like this gentleman are right in some areas.” The rest of his response is a wonderfully balanced display of empathy with the questioner, while supporting his decision with a thorough explanation.
What I love about this example is that he doesn’t dodge the question. We have all seen politicians do this: they turn Q&A into another opportunity to push their platform. But Jobs addresses the issue directly: he apologizes for killing OpenDoc, and takes the time to explain why he did it saying, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards from the technology; you can’t start with the technology and figure out where to sell it.”
He demonstrates understanding for where the questioner is coming from by saying he has made the mistake of doing things the other way around and has “the scar tissue to prove it.” He admits that mistakes will be made along the way, but promises Apple will, “find the mistakes, and we’ll fix them.” His willingness to admit his mistakes makes his answer more trustworthy.
Jobs chooses not to respond to the irrelevant comment regarding what he had been doing the past seven years because he recognized it as a jab. Instead, he turned a hostile question in to an opportunity to express how he, as a leader, makes difficult decisions. His thoughtful answer combined with the use of humor, body language, and diction is a fantastic example of how a presenter can make the most of Q&A.
The recently discovered recording of a Q&A session with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is another great example. King’s responses were more than an afterthought; they left his audience with even more insights to ponder.
Jobs and King both demonstrate that the best orators are just as eloquent handling Q&A as they are with the scripted portion of their talks.