My colleague was nervous. She had to deliver a 20-minute presentation about a sensitive topic, and she was worried that one of her coworkers would ask a tough question she didn't know how to answer.
So she played it safe. Stuck to the script, reading the bullets on the slides. Spoke in a style that was unassuming, factual and unemotional. And when she got to the slide that read, "Questions?", she looked around quickly and, when no one said anything, thanked everyone for their attention. Meeting over!
But although my colleague escaped the fire pit of tough questions, she wasn't satisfied. She knew the presentation lacked energy. She suspected that her coworkers didn't really buy in to her content.
My colleague was right to be disappointed. As John Medina writes in Brain Rules, "The brain doesn't pay attention to boring presentations."
That's why a spirited question-and-answer session is actually essential for making your presentation a success. Medina writes, "Emotionally charged events are better remembered--for longer, and with more accuracy--than neutral events. When your brain detects an emotionally charged event, your amygdala (a part of your brain that helps created and maintain emotions), releases the chemical dopamine into your system. Dopamine greatly aids memory and information processing. You can think of it like a Post-It note that reads, 'Remember this!'"
So don't let tough questions make you sweat. Instead, proactively manage the meeting to embrace questions instead of avoiding them. Here's how:
- Prepare for the most likely questions. Celebrities and politicians both know that the best defense is a good . . . defense. That's why they spend a few days before the debate or press conference brainstorming difficult questions, then working with their team on the best possible answers. Unless you're appearing on national TV, you don't have to spend quite as much time. But an hour or two of preparation will not only get you ready, it will also ease your mind.
- Develop a strategy for dealing with unexpected questions. No matter how much you prepare, it's likely that someone will surprise you with a question so zany and out there that you won't know how to answer it. No worries, as long as you've mapped out a strategy for what to do when that moment occurs. My favorite response: Acknowledge that the question is unexpected, write it on a flipchart and commit to responding within a certain time period.
- Don't plant questions. Especially in large-group settings, many presenters have another fear: that no one will ask any questions. So it's tempting to ask a friendly colleague to toss you a softball. Please resist this temptation because most people know immediately that planted questions are fake. Plus, although the hope is that planted questions will break the ice and lead to actual questions, they often have the opposite effect. Since planted questions are so perfectly articulated, they dissuade people from sharing the specific, not-entirely-baked thoughts in their heads.
- Ask the audience. If no one is raising a hand, or if you'd like to switch gears, pose questions you know the audience will respond to. To do, borrow a methodology that teachers use to engage students. Start with a simple yes/no recognition question: "With a show of hands, how many of you have had (state a specific) this experience?" Then broaden your scope with a question that asks participants to recall a situation: "Would someone share with me what happened when you encountered this?" Finally, ask audience members to put their experience together with your topic: "Based on what I shared with you today, how would you approach this?"
- Embrace questions. I'm with St. Augustine on this one: I may hate the question, but I love the questioner. In fact, I've found that the more I try to solicit questions and create an interactive experience, the more engaged participants become--and the more everyone feels like we're all in this together. So I give people sticky notes and markers and ask them to write questions as I present. Or I create a breakout session after my presentation and ask people in small groups to generate questions (and sometimes answers).
My biggest breakthrough in managing questions was when I realized that the more meeting participants talk, the smarter I seem. Questions are simply part of the sharing process. And when you're ready for them, questions can help you be successful.