The other night I spoke to a midsummer night networking event for women entrepreneurs at The Commonwealth Institute in Boston. The topic was finding purpose and passion in your work. Entrepreneurs tend to be pretty passionate people, but like everybody who is running a business now, they’re worried, exhausted and tense. Everybody needed to have some wine and some fun.
Injecting the fun is your job as speaker. What I’ve learned is how simple that is if youget everybody in on the act. Engage people from the very beginning and time will fly - they’ll be looking at their watches saying ”Wow, that was fast.”
Most speakers say their favorite part is always the Q & A. The reason is pretty obvious, isn’t it? Being on the platform is a lot more fun when people are talking to you. You have to think on your feet and your audience has a voice. Now you’re having a conversation. This is the one-to-one connection that we all strive for in every presentation. Still, a lot of speakers fumble the Q&A so let me provide some tips (mostly stuff I’ve learned the hard way):
Q & A Tip #1: Don’t Wait til the Fat Lady sings.
Who wrote the rule that Q & A has to come at the end? Often, a meeting planner will say, “you’ll have 45 minutes for your remarks, and then 15 minutes for questions at the end.” Don’t let convention or an unimaginative host dictate how you’ll do your program. Start encouraging interactino from the beginning. Ask people for a show of hands, get to know them, then lob some questions out to them. Pretty soon they get the idea and start asking back. If you don’t want question in a particular segment, just reassure them by letting them know you want to cover a topic, so hold that thought. If you wait til the end, most people have forgotten their questions. If you sprinkle in opportunities for interchange, they’ll be listening to every word.
Q & A Tip #2: If The Questioner Has the Floor, Step Back
This tip is utterly counterintuitive. When someone asks a question, most speakers without thinking walk toward the speaker - a natural urge - to create that connection. Your body language says, “I’m listening.” However, unless they’re at a microphone, the person who is speaking will not project their voice if you’re standing near by. They’ll talk to you. While you can always repeat their question it doesn’t have the same effect. I recently received a critique on this from an experienced speaker, the executive director of Boston’s YWCA. She showed me how to walk back or to the side while keeping eye contact with the questioner so that you conveyed interest while encouraging them to turn up the volume. Of course this changes if YOU are the microphone - i often go out into the audience to ask questions and then return to the stage, using my hand held microphone the way a television reporter would. This is a fantastic device for engaging people because they don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Q & A Tip #3: Kick off the Q & A with a Question of your Own
When you get to the point in your presentation where you ask, “Now, any questions,” the pregnant pause can be like the Grand Canyon. It’s awkward for everybody. I’ve seen speakers fumble around and make comments like, “Well I must have covered everything,” or “Gee I thought you’d have some opinions about that,” and those are suicidal statements. They kill the momentum. Instead, kick off the Q & A by saying, “I know you probably have some questions about this - I’ll take questions in a second. Let me kick it off by answering a question I’m often asked…” and then ask and answer your own question. This works like a charm. The audience has time to think about their questions while you’re doing your thing. If, after that, there still aren’t any questions, it never hurts to set up someone in the audience to go first. I don’t recommend telling them WHAT to ask, just request that they kick things off. By then the audience should be warming up.
Q & A Tip #4: Prepare for the Worst so they Never See you Sweat
In coaching top executives over the years, one of the toughest challenges they face are questions from a skeptical, extremely analytical or even hostile audience. If you’re delivering a controversial business case, pitching a project or handling a crisis, you’d better be ready for everything. In Speak like a CEO, I talk about the Quick Prep Method for preparing for Q & A. This works fincredibly well for media as well as meetings. In a nutshell, write down every question you anticipate starting with the toughest ones, especially the ones you don’t want anyone to ask. Jot down bullet point answers. Then, practice. Out loud. Hey, if they don’t ask, you’ll still feel ready for anything.
Q & A Tip #5: Be the Boss of the Stage
Absolutely nothing will torpedo a presentation faster than someone who tries to dominate, humiliate, joke inappropriately or argue past making their point. It makes everybody squirm. Then there are the people who don’t even have a question - grandstanders who want to look smart, and of course end up looking stupid. There’s nothing wrong with lively debate as it’s relevant and doesn’t go on too long. You need to be the boss, take control and make the event a good experience for everyone. Don’t let idiots steal the show.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to cut it off - see Congressman Barney Frank’s embarassing shout-off at a recent town hall meeting. No matter how emotional you feel there is no excuse for humiliating people - take the high road and you’ll look like a hero. Note to congressional leaders who haven’t yet canceled your town hall meetings: take a deep breath and remember who elected you.