Whether you run a company or are a one-man band, you probably talk in front of groups, both in prepared presentations and question and answer sessions.
Whether it's a room full of people or just a few team members, properly handling the question and answer section will either enforce your message--or undermine it. Bungle an answer and you may lose the credibility you established during your prepared words.
It's just as important to prepare for the Q&A as it is to practice what you plan to present. I was inspired by a weekly leadership letter I receive from business consultant Rick Houcek to share the following nine tips for being your best in a planned or impromptu Q&A session:
Be aware of hidden agendas.
Of course most of the questions asked by the audience are sincere and the asker is looking for a genuine response. But some questions are intended to either:
No matter the intent, answer all questions with the same approach and professionalism. You will come out looking better.
It's good practice to write down questions you anticipate may be asked, especially the tough or controversial ones, and to rehearse your answers. I often run though a mock session with some trusted colleagues. They always come up with questions that I didn't expect. Encourage others to evaluate your responses and body language. Fumble in private so you shine in public.
Smile and look your questioners in the eye. The eye contact shows that you are focusing carefully on the question and the questioner. The smile is an invitation to friendship and connection.
If you need a moment before answering a question, take it. A quick, snap answer can be doubted. Or if you haven't really thought through what was asked, you may answer the wrong question. It may feel awkward--silence often does--but your audience won't think less of you for taking a few seconds to collect your thoughts. In fact, they'll appreciate that you took your time to consider the questions, and it won't feel like a scripted answer.
Scratching your nose, excessive blinking, moving around, and other nervous ticks signal that you're lying. I know, you're probably not lying; you're likely just nervous. But perception is reality. Work to minimize these twitches.
Answer the question. Straight.
This is a common problem I see in Q&A sessions. The presenter doesn't answer the question that is asked. It may not be intentional--it could be that they weren't listening closely enough. Or, maybe the speaker didn't know the answer and decided to talk about something tangential he had expertise on instead. The reason doesn't matter. Nothing erodes the credibility you've built with the audience or makes them doubt your message more than avoiding the question.
Confirm you answered the question.
Occasionally throughout the Q&A session ask "Does that answer your question?" or "Is that clear?" It shows your audience you care and that you want to make sure their needs are being met.
Don't get thrown off by the awkward question.
There's always one, and it's always difficult. That person in the audience who asks a question that really doesn't match to the presentation or is just out in left field. Handle this question as professionally as you do any of the other questions and try to tie your answer back to your main message. This takes a little tap dancing, but it may be the answer you are most remembered for. (Remember President Clinton being asked 'boxers or briefs?' on the MTV town hall?)
Practice, Practice, Practice
Make sure you focus some of your practice time on the Q&A. Usually, it's the last thing you do on stage after a presentation, and it may be the portion you are most remembered for. Don't give it short shrift.