We all know the feeling. That deep breath you take after finally finishing a presentation you’d been dreading, only to remember seconds later that you still have to endure an entire Q&A session.
A question and answer session comes with a variety of potential worst-case scenarios that no matter how hard we try – we can’t help but think about. Whether it’s losing our train of thought halfway through a response or forgetting the main point you’re building up to in your answer – everyone dreads freezing up while an audience stares back waiting for our thoughts to magically gather themselves. If we’re lucky, our thoughts will pop back into our heads…but that isn’t always the case.
The reality is, answering these types of impromptu questions is simply a part of the workplace. Scenarios like “going blank” or losing our train of thought tend to happen when we conduct a Q&A session without preparing for it in advance. Launching into an answer without first planning our strategy on how best to communicate your thoughts can preclude us from putting our best self forward and ending our presentation feeling confident (not to mention impressing higher management!).
Why does the Q&A Session Matter?
It can be frustrating to have gone through an entire presentation laying out the information you have only to have an audience member ask you for clarification or to elaborate on a point you may have discussed just five minutes earlier. (Ugh, weren’t they listening?!) This is just one reason why the Q&A is so important. Not everyone will catch every word you say.
The Q&A is not just some unnecessary formality. There are real benefits to a question and answer session, for both you and the person asking the question.
Here are just a few reasons why nailing a Q&A session can be beneficial to you and your career:
- It can further establish your credibility
- It gives you the opportunity to build rapport with the audience
- It allows you to dive into more detailed/technical information
- It can help clarify your logic
- It can add to your leadership presence
Engaging an audience by listening and responding attentively validates your knowledge of the topic and proves to your audience that you are credible.
If you are like most people, you spend the majority of your time on your presentation, and very little (if any!) thinking about the questions you could be asked at the end…but the question and answer (Q&A) period has the power to either enhance our credibility or destroy it – no matter how well the presentation went.
To make sure you’re putting your best foot forward there are some things you should always remember before heading into a Q&A session.
5 Things To Always Remember When Conducting a Q&A Session
1. Practice Frameworks When Answering Questions
Not knowing what questions you may receive during a Q&A session can seem scary (yikes!). Having a framework prepared will not only help you feel more comfortable with impromptu speaking but will ensure that you stay on track and get your main point across clearly.
The P.R.E.P Framework is simple but effective, especially when you’re asked a question you weren’t expecting or when a response requires your opinion.
P.R.E.P stands for:
- P = Point (state your point)
- R = Reason (give a reason)
- E = Example (give a short example that supports your point)
- P = Point (re-state your point)
For example, you may be asked, “Do you agree with the new policies being implemented in the office?”
Your response would be something along the lines of…
“My point is that [state whether you agree or disagree]…my reason for disagreeing is because [state your reason]…for example [give an example to support your reason]…that is why I [state whether you agree or disagree] with the company’s recent budget cuts.”
2. Take the Time to Understand What The Question Is Asking of You
The anticipation of what type of question someone will ask and how you’ll go about answering it is enough to get even the most experienced leaders nervous – but allowing your anxiety to take over can affect how you absorb someone’s question.
Making sure you take the time to understand the question you are given is integral to how you will go about answering it. No one wants to put together a response that misses the point or isn’t helpful to the inquirer. Remember, no matter how we’ve felt in the past, asking someone to repeat their question isn’t negative or embarrassing – in fact it shows your initiative in providing the best response you can.
It’s also important to remember that taking the time to pause, think about your answer and how you want to approach it, will help you produce a succinct response.
Pro-Tip: Start your response off by rephrasing the question you’re given to buy yourself some time to think before answering.
3. Come Prepared To Navigate Interruptions From The Audience
Ongoing interruptions during your presentation might be distracting not only to you but to other people in the room. It might also result in a ‘free for all’ scenario where others jump on the bandwagon and start peppering you with questions as well. Before you know it, you’ve only gotten through 10% of your slides and you’re out of time. So, how might you avoid such a scenario?
Sometimes your audience will want information the moment the question pops into their head, which is often mid-way through your presentation. When this happens, it’s often due to the audience not realizing when it’s the most appropriate time to ask questions because you didn’t set any ground rules by pre-empting them ahead of time like saying “I will be taking questions at the end of the presentation”.
4. Be Prepared For Difficult Questions That You May Not Know The Answer To
How much easier would life be if everyone just agreed with what we said? It might be easier, but the quality of our work wouldn’t be nearly as high. That’s why at high-performing organizations, there is significant emphasis and value placed on challenging each other’s opinions and ideas. Challenging each other pushes us to be more innovative and helps teams avoid ‘groupthink’ (Hagel III).
That said, it can also make your life more challenging when answering questions.. Luckily, there are strategies we can use to make the most of these challenges and respond in a way that’s collaborative and solution-oriented. One strategy is, before explaining/defending your reasoning, identify areas where you agree. Acknowledge those first and then use that as a segway to discuss where your opinions diverge.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice
We get it, the thought of having to endure a Q&A session may be bringing those old avoidance behaviour tendencies back to the surface. These feelings are normal and should be used as an opportunity to demonstrate how you can push through these feelings and out of your comfort zone (don’t forget to apply your growth mindset!).
What To Do If You Don’t Have The Answers
Sorry to break it to you, but you’re not Google. You won’t always know the answer to all the questions and that’s OK! Obviously it’s important to be able to answer key questions directly related to your job, but there will be a time that someone asks you something you can’t – and you shouldn’t try to answer on the spot.
A few examples of when you might not know the answer to a question is when:
- It’s about a topic beyond the scope of your expertise
- It’s irrelevant to your job function or work
- It’s seeking clarity on a specific data point that you are unfamiliar with
- It’s about a situation that you were not present for or did not witness first hand
- You might just be having an “off” week and can’t remember or are behind on work.
Whatever the reason, we strongly believe in following an important rule of thumb: if you don’t actually know the answer, do not just make one up. Chances are, people will be able to tell and you’ll risk damaging your credibility. If you don’t know the answer, say so but be proactive in finding out the answer. You could say something like: “That’s a great question. I don’t have the exact numbers on me and it’s important for me to be accurate so right after this meeting I’ll find out and send them to you”.
The Harvard Business Review recommends ensuring you take your time, “Don’t be too quick to respond after an executive grills you. Be sure you understand the question. Pause to consider your first words. If they’re strong, you and your questioners will both feel more confident as you continue” (Nawaz, p.3).
Do you have a tendency to ramble, go “blank”, or lose your train of thought while speaking during an important meeting or presentation? We know how daunting this can be. Sign-up for our free newsletter and receive our tips for impromptu speaking to help you deliver clear, concise, and structured messages and conduct amazing Q&A sessions!
Nawaz, S. (2020). Presenting to Management? Be Prepared for the Tough Questions. Harvard Business Review.
Hagel III, J. (2021). Good Leadership is About Asking Good Questions. Harvard Business Review.
Webb, C. (2020). How to Nail the Q&A After Your Presentation. Harvard Bussiness Review.
Monarth, H. (2021). How to Manage Interruptions in Meetings. Harvard Business Review.