How to Deal with Conference Q&A

Posted on by Rachel in advent speaker tips.

There are certain types of questions which may not be best answered on stage.

At some events, having given your talk, the floor will be turned over to the audience for questions. For many speakers this is the hardest part of the talk, and while I’m not really a fan of conference Q&A you can learn to deal with it, and at least not have it a a source of dread!

You can often avoid Q&A

If you find Q&A excruciating, or perhaps you talk on a subject where the audience is more likely to be comfortable having a one on one chat afterwards, talk to the organiser. In most cases, just because they usually do Q&A doesn’t mean you have to do it, especially if you have strong reasons not to. In that case they, or you can announce that you will be around to answer individual questions afterwards. You can offer to fill that time with your talk, so it doesn’t seem as if your session is then short.

Anticipate the common questions

If you have given this talk before, or simply spoken on this subject before, you already know the common questions that might be asked, having answers on the tip of your tongue for those can be really useful.

Prepare answers for certain situations

In addition to common questions, there are certain types of questions which may not be best answered on stage. There may be questions you are unable to answer, even when you know the answer. That might be because you speak on behalf of your employer and there is some hot topic that you can’t divulge information on. Know what you will say if you are asked about it.

You may simply not know the answer. That’s fine! I usually just admit to that and say I can find out and get back to the person - usually I ask them to come grab me after and share contact info, unless it is smething I could just look up there and then. However having that answer ready prepared helps you not feel flustered for not knowing every possible thing.

There will often be someone with a very specific question on their own circumstances. In that case the answer probably needs more information than there is time for, and the answer not helpful to the room in general. In that case I would ask them to come speak with me afterwards, with a comment like “I can’t do that justice in the few minutes we have - but I’m really happy to explore the issue later”. Again, being prepared to recognise and respond to that situation saves you standing on stage feeling flustered as someone unpacks all their problems to you.

Dealing with not being able to hear or understand the question

It can sometimes be difficult just to hear the questions being asked. Even if the attendee has been given a mic, they may be using their second language - or you may be. You may have reduced hearing making it hard to hear someone, the person may have a strong accent that you are unfamiliar with. They may ask a question in a very convoluted way, and you can’t quite understand what they asked.

The first thing to do is to ask them to repeat, if you couldn’t hear, or rephrase the question. Hopefully they will then speak more slowly, loudly or simply choose a different way to explain. If things really aren’t going anywhere, I would simply ask them to come and chat to you afterwards, “my brain is fried after the talk - come chat to me afterwards” works well!

If you are particularly concerned about this issue - perhaps because of hearing or language difficulty then speak to the organiser beforehand. They may well be able to get someone to help you out onstage by moderating the questions.

Dealing with the person who “has more of a comment than a question”

If there are a lot of people wanting to ask a question, and someone decides that they would like to give their opinion on your talk, it is perfectly reasonable to politely cut them off with, “if we have time we can come back to comments, but I’d like to address questions first” and move on to someone else. Practice makes perfect with this one, and know that there will be many people in the audience right there with you when you deflect that. If their comment is reasonably short and you don’t need to move on from them, don’t feel you need to respond, simply say “thank you for your opinion” and move on.

If someone has decided you are wrong, perhaps they do point out something that was incorrect, don’t worry about it. Have a few rehearsed phrases to deflect the situation. No-one expects you to be right all the time, or to have uncontested opinions, and if you did just state something incorrectly you will win far more people over by saying, “you know, I think you are right, thanks!” than becoming defensive.

Repeat the question

It is always worth repeating the question, the rest of the audience may not have heard it, this also gives you a chance to state the bit you are going to answer. Quite often people will ask a jumble of related points that you don’t have time to unpack, so while restating the question I would normally say something like, “there were a few questions here, but I’d love to talk a bit about <insert question here>”, after answering that, you can always again suggest that they come talk to you later if they would like to discuss any of the other things.

Moderated Q & A

More conferences seem to have moved to a moderated Q & A approach, where audience members can submit questions via Twitter or a form and then you will be asked them on stage by the MC after the talk. I much prefer this model, and if this is how the Q & A will work at your event you can help the MC out by priming them with some common questions that might be asked, just in case they don’t get a lot of questions. You can also let them know anything you can’t answer or don’t want to talk about, so they know not to bring up that subject.

What if no-one asks a question?

I have done the exact same talk in two different places, in one the audience had enough questions we could have gone on for another hour, the next complete silence in the room but then afterwards people came up to me individually. Audiences are very different. Some events seem to have a culture of asking questions, and you will discover big differences around the world in terms of how happy people are to question the presenter in front of the rest of the audience. It might just be that you are the pre-lunch talk and everyone is anticipating those conference snacks.

You can do two things here, you can either bring up something pre-prepared. FOr example if you have something you didn’t have time to cover in your talk but know people will ask about later you could briefly go into that. Or, simply close off with a thank you and a reminder that if people come up with something they want to ask they can catch you later, or contact you via whichever method you like to share. Once again, being prepared with your closing comments is helpful, especially if it is up to you to close things out and there is no MC to do that for you.

Ultimately, while you might think Q&A is something you can’t prepare for, there are a finite number of things that might happen. Rehearsing for those, and having an idea of your responses to different situations, is possible.

Advent speaker tips: this is part of a series of tips for public speakers that we’re posting throughout advent. Check back daily during December for more.

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