The Q&A portion of any presentation has the potential to be extremely exciting and informative. However, it can also descend into chaos and undermine an otherwise great delivery. Some of the most confident presenters still tremble in the face of Q&A; even though they've got a completely well-rehearsed and prepared presentation, the idea of having what is essentially an impromptu speech tacked on to the end of the proceedings is daunting, to say the least.
Can you blame them? There is, perhaps, nothing as scary as the unknown. But what if you could remove some of the "free-fall feeling" from your Q&A session? Or, even from any interactive impromptu speech scenario?
Here are 3 major ways you can take out some unknowns, tone down the fear, and survive the gauntlet of off-the-cuff speaking:
1. Embrace the power of pause: Ah, the sound of silence. We advocate for the power of pause in many situations, especially in an impromptu setting. Simply taking a moment without speaking can save you from responding with a verbal virus like "ummmm" or "uhhhh" and help keep you from misspeaking in a situation where you may feel pressured to speak quickly.
The secret is this: know your audience will wait for you. In fact, you build a bit of mystery and intrigue when they have to take a moment to wonder what you're going to say. Don't be afraid to pause, and give yourself a second to choose your words.
2. You actually CAN practice impromptu speaking: Especially for a post-presentation Q&A setting, you can absolutely practice responding to questions. Take some time during your presenation prep and brainstorm what questions you may receive. If you know your material and your audience well enough, you should absolutely be able to guess what questions may be on their mind.
Once you've got your questions, elicit the help of a friend or colleague, and practice answering them at random. Remember, this isn't about memorizing responses, but about getting used to the feeling of impromptu speaking before an audience. The added benefit? Not only will you be more comfortable with your Q&A, but you'll get even closer to your content, and your audience itself, by anticipating their needs and concerns.
3. You don't have to answer every question: Let that sink in for a moment — you don't have to answer every question. A lot of the anxiety around impromptu speech and Q&A can come from the fear that you won't have an answer for everything. Guess what? That's ok.
When it comes to not answering questions, here are two helpful things to remember:
The words "I don't know": You're a human, not the internet. If someone asks you a question you don't have the answer to, it's perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that, rather than giving an incorrect or less-than-truthful answer. Offer to find out the information and get it to the asker as soon as possible, or toss the question back to the crowd itself: " I actually don't have the answer to that. Do we have any experts in the house that might?"
Honesty is the best policy: If you opt not to answer a question, give your audience an honest reason why. Perhaps you can't answer for legal reasons, or the question is way off-topic for the proceedings, or of interest to only a small faction of your audience. Let them know that. They'll understand, and you'll maintain your confident control of the session.
We all speak off-the-cuff every day. But being able to survive the slings and arrows of impromptu speech in front of a crowd can be way more difficult. These 3 major tips can help make your next session feel less like running the gauntlet and more like throwing one down.
How do you handle impromptu or Q&A sessions? Let us know in the comments below!
And here are some more ways you can prepare for impromptu situations: