Presenting? Don’t shy away from your Q&A – part 1 [Video]

Close-up of Monopoly game board showing a large question mark and the word "Chance"What’s your attitude to the Q&A session when you give a speech or presentation?

If you’re like most speakers, you likely feel a bit nervous about giving your talk, but more nervous about taking questions!

After all, if you think of questions negatively, they can seem like tests. And the people asking them can seem to be doubting your expertise.

So, you might fear scenarios like these:

But let’s not get carried away thinking of negatives. Instead, here’s a much calmer and more positive approach:

  • Think of a question as just a request to share your knowledge or experience.
  • And think of the person asking as someone who’s keen to learn more from you, or to hear your views.

In this post, you’ll find a 1-hour video of expert tips for handling questions. It’s by the late Denise Graveline, who was a coach for TEDMED and TEDx. (Denise’s blog is still online, and it’s chock full of tips and examples, focusing on female speakers.)

To save you time, the video below skips the host’s 1-minute intro and starts with Denise’s opening line.

Then, below the video, you’ll find many key quotes from what she said, with links straight to the relevant part of the clip on YouTube. And you’ll find links to many related posts from me and other bloggers, too.

Denise starts by acknowledging both the negative and positive views you can have about answering audience questions (as raised at the start of this post). On the positive side, she says:

“Q&A is a great way for you to establish yourself,
and your expertise, with great credibility”
Denise Graveline – at 2:12

So how do you make your Q&A session boost your credibility, rather than erode it?

According to Denise, that comes down to 3 steps you can take to master your Q&A:

  1. Plan your Q&A first – which consists of these topics:
  2. Predict questions you might get
  3. Problem-solve (in advance and on stage)

This post covers the 1st of those 3 steps, and you can click any of the links above if you want to jump to a specific topic. (You’ll find the 2nd and 3rd steps in next month’s post.)


Plan your Q&A firstScroll to Contents ↑

You might be surprised by Denise’s novel attitude to Q&A: She sees questions as a key part of the conversation you’re having with your audience (rather than treating the Q&A as an afterthought, as so many speakers do).

So it follows that you should arrange your time accordingly:

“You need to start planning your presentation
by planning the question time first”
Denise Graveline – at 4:33

I like that Denise approaches questions tactically. She says by planning your Q&A first, you can address the points below


What if you get no questions?Scroll to Contents ↑

Most speakers put way too much content on their slides and in their talk as a whole. So if that’s you, you’ll likely get this result in your Q&A:

“Part of the reason you don’t get questions is that you
included too much information in your presentation.
You didn’t leave the audience anything to ask”
Denise Graveline – 5:15

Luckily, you’ve many ways you can avoid that:

  • Leave out some essentials from your talk, to prompt people to ask about them.
  • Give people time to think of questions (during both your talk and your Q&A). Many people also need some time to pluck up courage to ask! As Denise puts it, if you don’t get questions right away during your Q&A:

“The first thing you need to do is wait”
Denise Graveline – 20:08

  • Take a poll or show of hands, which avoids people needing to speak up (and stand out).
  • Especially if you’re speaking on a webinar or other online event, you might be able to ask for questions beforehand. Denise says:

“Sometimes you have a tool that will let you solicit
questions in advance, and you should always use that”
Denise Graveline – 5:54

  • You might’ve heard advice to plant a friend in the audience to ask a question (or several) if no one else takes part. I think that’s a good backup, but Denise suggests you don’t try it:

“Here’s the problem with [planting questions]: We can tell, right.
So try not to fake it… It’s much more electric and interesting,
and connecting, to let people ask the real questions that they have”
Denise Graveline – 47:58


What if you get trolled?Scroll to Contents ↑

About the risk of being harassed during your Q&A, Denise says:

“[Trolling] doesn’t happen exclusively to women,
but it happens a lot to women”
Denise Graveline – 9:29

The troll is trying to make themselves look good, but remember:

“The rest of the audience is going to be
on your side, not on that person’s side”
Denise Graveline – 10:16

And as for things you can do, Denise suggests:

“[Rehearse] ahead of time, a few answers…
that would be a counter to that person”
Denise Graveline – 11:19

That’s a great tactic, as it avoids you having to think of a good response under pressure.

It’s similar to what I suggest you do (when you prepare for giving a webinar) to guard against potential tech issues: Namely, think of a light-hearted line in advance that shows you’re not fazed.

As an example, Denise quotes a line from Ronald Reagan in a presidential debate with Jimmy Carter:

“Ronald Reagan would shake his
head with a big smile and say,
‘There you go again.
There you go again.’

Denise Graveline – 12:51

Denise says about using a comeback line to counter a troll:

“And what are you doing there? …
First of all, you’re being non-anxious,
which is the role of the speaker”
Denise Graveline – 13:01

She goes on:

“It’s a way of connecting with the audience to say,
‘Hey everybody, I know what’s going on here,
and so do you’

Denise Graveline – 13:38

Having a shared view of your listeners’ current moment like that’s a powerful way to connect with them.


What if your audience has very mixed knowledge levels?Scroll to Contents ↑

You don’t have to limit yourself to having Q&A near the end of your presentation:

“You also may want to consider
a couple of novel ways of handling Q&A”
Denise Graveline – 14:03

One of those is to start with Q&A. That can be a great help if your audience contains both novices in your topic and people with lots of knowledge.

As Denise says:

“[Starting with questions] gives you a sense of what
you may need to add to your presentation on the fly.
And then it releases some tension from the audience”
Denise Graveline – 15:18

As she goes on to say, that release is also handy if your audience is angry about something.

For instance, you might be speaking at work to people whose colleagues have just lost their jobs. Whether or not you’re speaking about the job losses, some people in the room are bound to be angry.


What’s a good way to engage people – right from the start?Scroll to Contents ↑

Here’s another option – for any talk:

“You also can consider planning
a program that’s entirely Q&A”
Denise Graveline – 16:10

Many years ago, I saw a trainer do that, and I was extremely impressed!

As Denise put it:

“If you are solid in your expertise…
sometimes it’s great for the audience to be
in charge of which way the presentation will go”
Denise Graveline – 16:20

To get a feel for something similar, you can watch a recording of a non-linear webinar. It’s by Ken Molay, who gets his audience to vote on his agenda items, which sets the running order.

As you might expect, that’s no mean feat. And it’s perhaps even more challenging to give a talk that’s wholly driven by audience questions:

“It takes less preparation for you, in one sense,
and in another sense, it’s all the preparation
you’ve had in your entire career”
Denise Graveline – 16:37

By the way, that reminds me of a great blog post by Rob Biesenbach:

How long does it take to write a speech? 30 years


Quick summaryScroll to Contents ↑

So, here’s a reminder of what you saw above:

  1. Plan your Q&A first


Over to youScroll to Contents ↑

Look out for next month’s post, where you’ll find Denise’s last 2 steps for handling Q&A:

  1. Predict questions you might get
  2. Problem-solve (in advance and on stage)

In the meantime, what’s your favourite way to handle Q&A? (You might pick one of Denise’s suggestions, or mention one of your own.)

Let me know in the comments.


Also check outScroll to Contents ↑


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