It was presentation day.
I had prepared beautiful slides (with the help of a professional designer). I had written (and rewritten) compelling talking points. And I had rehearsed a few dozen times.
The minute I was introduced on stage, I was in the zone. The room was packed and the audience was smiling. They were listening attentively...even laughing in all the right spots. I thought, “I'm gonna nail this talk.”
Expect the unexpected.
After my talking points, I opened for questions. I handled the first few with ease but, somewhere along the way, the interrogation began. I started to get some tough ones and I froze. After giving yet another weak response, I knew I had lost the audience. I scanned the room for a smile—none found. I ended with a meek “thank you for coming,” and walked off the stage. Needless to say, I got zero buy-in.
As much time as I had spent developing my presentation and rehearsing, I had not invested enough time getting comfortable with the (potentially) hard questions that might arise afterwards.
Anyone can rehearse with slides and practice answering “softball” questions. But...how many people rehearse by intentionally practicing with hard questions? I mean, getting really comfortable for when the punches start to fly?
Why Q&A’s Are Your Ally
When you deliver a presentation, the audience assumes you’re qualified to speak about the subject, even at a basic level. You don’t have to be the sole expert on the issue (no one is). You just need enough credibility to speak intelligibly about the topic.
And remember, wherever there’s a gap in the audience’s understanding of your talk, the Q&A’s are there to help them understand you. Ultimately, if they're trying to decode your message, that’s a good thing. That means they’re interested.
3 Simple Ways to Nail Your Next Q&A
(1) Tell Your Audience What to Ask
After a talk, it’s common to field a host of unwieldy questions that are all over the map. Why wait for the audience to come up with the questions when you can guide them to key themes? For example…after pitching a new idea, you might say:
“I’m happy to take any questions. Typically, people ask me/us to drill down into three key areas:
1. Our technology and how it works
2. Our target market and the opportunity
3. Our business model and how we can turn a profit
Of those three areas, what questions do you have? Or what other topics would you like to me/us touch on?”
By curating the Q&A before people start lobbing random Q’s at you, you can help the audience think about how to think about their questions. (I had to read that twice.) In other words, give the audience a framework for their thoughts to help guide their queries, which will give you the upper hand when it's your turn to respond.
(2) Build a Question Databank
In addition to guiding the audience, it’s critical to anticipate what other common (and not-so-common) questions will pop up. To do this, work with your team and/or advisory board to identify potential objections.
You'll notice, as you continue to refine your presentation, the same questions will likely keep showing up. At the same time, others may hit you out of the clear blue sky. Your job is to track each type of question, work through the best response, and use these to build your own databank.
Thinking through difficult questions is a worthwhile endeavor because the answers you develop can help bolster your case when you're pitching an idea, initiative or new strategic approach.
(3) Practice “CPR” (Cushion > Probe > Respond)
I learned this technique years ago. It’s extremely helpful because it's so easy to remember.
C = Cushion. Absorb the blow of an unexpected question/criticism with a simple “Thank you for asking.” The key here is to buy time, remain calm, and give yourself a chance to process what they asked.
P = Probe. Before you respond, you MUST be 100% confident you grasp their intention. A great way to do this is to summarize by saying, “So, if I heard you correctly, you said X...Does that sound right?”
The audience member who posed the question will either say:
“Yes, that’s what I asked” or “No, that’s not right."
Paraphrasing will boost your leadership quotient because it demonstrates your ability to empathize and synthesize.
R = Respond. Now that you’ve acknowledged the question and gained clarity/agreement, it's time to respond thoughtfully. You might share data points or a story that overcomes their objection. And above all else, make sure to weave the objection into a source of strength that speaks to your shared values.
Give it your best shot.
As much as you prepare, there will always be questions you can’t foresee. When that happens, remind yourself that, as Diderot said, “skepticism is the first step towards truth.” If the audience really didn’t care, they wouldn’t say anything.
So, see their curiosity as a sign of interest and an opportunity to align with what you are both committed to.
I Want to Hear from You: The Q&A Grit Challenge
What’s the single most difficult, grittiest question or objection that’s come up during one of your presentations? Shoot me an email and I'll answer it in a future issue of Pitch DNA Insider.
Founder, Pitch DNA
Bonus Tip: Turning Insults into History
Bonus Tip: What would Steve Jobs do if someone in the audience insulted him? Find out.