Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 5, Issue 36;   September 7, 2005: Mastering Q and A

Mastering Q and A

by

The question-and-answer exchanges that occur during or after presentations rarely add much to the overall effort. But how you deal with questions can be a decisive factor in how your audience evaluates you and your message.

As everyone began filing out of the conference room, Allison switched off the projector, dragged her presentation icon into the recycle bin, and began collecting her notes. Geoff lingered in his chair for a bit, and then when everyone had gone, he stood and said, simply, "Grand slam!"

A small workgroupAllison smiled brightly and sat down. "Yeah," she said. "it was!"

"And the best part," Geoff continued, "was how you handled Marketing's questions about the slip."

As Geoff's comments illustrate, how you handle questions — especially hostile questions — can be more important than the presentation. Here are some tips for handling Q&A.

Resist evaluating questions
An example of evaluation is starting your reply with, "That's a very good question." Evaluating the question or the questioner can come across as arrogance. Most of the time, people who do this are just stalling for time. If you need time, just look directly at the questioner and say, "Hmmm," while you nod slowly.
Stay out of the rabbit hole
Evaluating a question
or a questioner
can seem arrogant
Some questions are so detailed, off track, or argumentative that almost any genuine response is de-focusing. Better: make a brief comment and then suggest that you'll be willing to talk further off line.
Let the questioner ask the question
Don't interrupt to complete a questioner's question. Wait for the question, restate it, and then answer it.
Make sure you understand
If you don't understand, ask for an explanation. If you still don't get it, apologize, and offer to take it off line.
Withhold derision
Some questions seem ridiculous. Some actually are. Displaying derision is both rude and risky. It can alienate the questioner and others in the audience.
Stay in bounds
Know clearly where the boundaries of confidentiality and your expertise are. If asked to step over a boundary, apologize and say, "I really can't say." Most people will understand.
Don't joke about serious matters
Making jokes about things people take seriously could hurt or arouse the ire of some members of the audience. Be careful, especially about technical religion, technical dogma, and technical politics.
Know how to handle spacing out
You might lose the thread. It happens. When it does, ask the questioner to repeat the question, and this time, listen. Also, consider this a sign of fatigue, and consider halting the Q&A or taking a break.
Be right
Since one of your goals is credibility, being wrong is not good. Say only what you know, and nothing more. If you have doubts about what you're about to say, tell the audience about your doubts, or don't say it.

Most important, for the really tense presentations, practice. Have some colleagues ask you tough questions, and work out some good answers. Sometimes, a well-prepared response can be more effective in Q&A than making the same point during prepared remarks. Any questions? Go to top Top  Next issue: FedEx, Flocks, and Frames of Reference  Next Issue

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See also Effective Communication at Work and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

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We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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