Fail-Proof Q&A Prep

By Stephanie Patterson

Audience member engaging in a Question and Answer session while the speaker looks nervous and unprepared

Including an opportunity for Q&A during your presentation is a great way to engage your audience and gather immediate feedback. But don’t think you can just wing it; being unprepared can erase the memory of your fantastic presentation and leave your audience scratching their head trying to decipher your answer. Make Q&A prep part of your ritual when preparing to speak to ensure your presentation ends on a high note.

Have a plan: decide when and how you want to field questions. Think about where Q&A will fit well in the context of your presentation, and tee this up for your audience. If you would like them to hold all questions until the end, state that up front so you won’t have to address it again. Pausing for questions after covering a specific topic is another good approach – especially if your presentation is longer than 45 minutes. It can be a welcome change in format, and engage your audience in a new way.

Answer questions proactively: when planning your presentation, put yourself in the shoes of your audience and brainstorm every potential question they might ask. Think specifically about where they may resist what you are sharing, and jot down questions that articulate their doubts.

At Duarte , we do an exercise called the Audience Journey where we explore what our audience believes, thinks, and feels about our topic, and what we want them to believe, think, and feel by the end of our presentation. This helps us identify questions and concerns we need to cover.

Directly addressing the concerns of your audience will make you look like a mind reader, and help build rapport. Your audience will be thinking: “Oh! She thought of that, too.” They will feel heard and understood.

Anticipate EVERY question: Once you’ve gathered all your content, review it again and look for new questions that might be asked as a result of what you are presenting. Make a list, writing down even the most outlandish and hostile questions. Gather others to help you brainstorm; their perspective will be different than yours and will yield questions you didn’t think of. Then rehearse your answers to every question. Make sure you know your content through and through, even related topics you are not directly covering in your presentation. Body language is important, too, especially when handling a hostile question. Consider practicing in front of a mirror or with a colleague, and take note of your default body language when confronted with an intimidating question. Do your shoulders stiffen? Do you roll your eyes or fold your arms? Make a conscious effort to shift unfriendly body language so you don’t send the wrong message.

If you don’t have an answer, don’t fake it: Even the best preparation leaves the chance of being surprised by a question you didn’t expect. If you don’t have an answer, be honest. Take down the questioner’s contact information, do your research, and follow up with an answer. Don’t stick your foot in your mouth by making something up. A prompt and thorough follow up will do more for your reputation than a rambling explanation.

Carve out time to thoughtfully prepare questions and answers when planning your next talk. Your investment will make Q&A the encore of your presentation: elevating your message and building a deeper bond with the audience.

See how Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King, Jr. handled tough questions: How to CYA for Q&A

Written by

Stephanie Patterson