10 Tips on Planning & Hosting a Successful Question and Answer Session
5th September 2011 by Rachel Willis
We regularly spend time with people planning to host business Q&A sessions on stage, as part of our Virtual Events or live via telephone conferencing services. In my experience planning and hosting a successful Q&A session is easier said than done. Here are my 10 tips on how to plan and host successful Question and Answer sessions:
1. Rehearse: Yes, you can rehearse a Q&A session. You’ll need a friend or a colleague to help you and it’s their job to ask you as many questions as possible. This will enable you to practice the art of receiving and answering questions. For example thanking the person for a great question and then referring to their name in your answer.
2. Think about possible questions: Think in advance of the likely questions that you’ll receive and give some quality time to considering how you’ll answer them. This is a great discipline as it’ll give you the chance to practice giving clear succinct answers. (There is nothing worse than an answer that turns into a presentation. Always remember to keep answers short and to the point.)
3. Deal with difficult questions: The problem with holding a live Q&A session is you never know what you’re going to get. It’s a great idea to have a pre-prepared response up your sleeve for any difficult or confrontational questions that come your way. For example; ‘That’s a great question. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to answer that now, but I’ll happily discuss this with you in person after this session.’ (I once saw Steve Ballmer give a similar answer at a Microsoft Partner event and it was very effective.)
4. Tell the audience in advance: In terms of hosting a question and answer session it’s always a good idea to tell the audience you plan to do a Q&A in advance. Just by referring to it at the start of your presentation you’re planting the thought in the audience’s minds and giving them the opportunity to think up some questions. If you’re audience are on round tables you can always give them 5 minutes to discuss some questions amongst their tables prior to receiving any. Both options should ensure that you’re not left high and dry when commence your Q&A session.
5. Set some Rules: Before you start the Q&A, it's helpful to set a few ground rules. For example: Wait for the microphone before asking your question and then please introduce yourself (by name & organization). This gives the session a structure and helps to keep control of the audience.
6. Use pre-submitted questions: Have several questions up your sleeve that you can use if you don’t receive any from the audience. You can call these pre-submitted questions and you can even gather some from the audience prior to the event. Alternatively, you can say that you’re going to start the Q&A with some common questions. You can also consider planting a question in the audience with a friend or colleague. You know the question they’re going to ask and you also know who you’re going to go to for that all-important first question. This might feel a bit forced, but it really does help to get things moving and break the ice.
7. Don’t get into a debate: If someone is being persistent in their questioning then offer to speak to them after the session in person. No one will judge you for his; in fact the audience are far more likely to empathise with you. What the audience won’t appreciate is being spectator to a lengthy debate, especially if they have questions they’d like to ask and they are not interested in that point! If someone doesn’t understand your answer then re-phrase it, however, if they still don’t understand your response use the same approach. Offer to speak to them after the session and move onto the next question.
8. Consider using a Moderator: Depending on the size of your audience it might be worth using a Moderator who can join you on stage and facilitate the questions from the audience. If you’re at a big event you might have a panel area where you and the Moderator can sit. The Moderator can then pose some pre-submitted questions to you before opening it up to the floor. A moderator will always make sure you have a question to answer and will filter any inappropriate one’s out for you.
9. Stick to time: Q&A’s are tricky because they can end up like a vacuum of time that need to be filled, or a stream of questions that never seems to stop. This later issue can cause them to run widely overtime. It’s worth using a stop clock (or at a larger event, a speaker clock) so you can see how much time you have left. This will enable you to keep answers succinct and it will also enable you to worn the audience in advance that you only have 5 minutes left so can only take a couple more questions from the floor.
10. Don’t point: This might seem like a strange point but it’s a very important one (excuse the pun!) I’ve seen people take question form their audience members by continually pointing at people across the room like some kind of dictator addressing their people! Remember, some people will be nervous about asking questions, so don’t use this aggressive approach or you might find yourself question-less! If you can’t see the audience clearly ask for the house-lights to be turned on (and tell the crew you’re doing this in advance. If there aren’t any ask a friend to do it.)
There will be those who think it’s better to just go into a Q&A session blind and not prepare at all because they “perform better when they’re put on the spot”. Well, in my experience this just isn’t the case. A bad Q&A session with floundering answers can cause even the best presenters to lose credibility. So make sure you do like the professionals do and practice!
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