Q & A is one of the most challenging aspects of public speaking. Yet it’s also one of your greatest opportunities to shine as a presenter.
If you can field questions with panache, think on your feet, and marshal pieces of evidence with only seconds’ notice, you’ll convince listeners that you are at the top of your game. (For more help dealing with challenges while speaking including Q & A, download our cheat sheet, "7 Tips for Overcoming Audience Resistance.")
Preparing Yourself for Q & A
That’s not to say that audiences will make it easy for you. In fact, Q & A sessions tend to bring out the worst and sometimes the angriest of our critics. So prepare yourself beforehand for a few self-propelled grenades that will probably be heading your way.
To help you do so, here is an ammunition toolbox. It's the segment of my workshops that I call “The 7 Danger Zones of Q & A.” It includes a brief explanation of the worst types of questions you will face in question-and-answer sessions, with comments about how you can best cope with each one.
“The 7 Danger Zones”
1. Hostile questions
2. Loaded questions
3. Leading questions
4. Hypothetical questions
5. Multifaceted questions
6. Fuzzy questions
7. False choices
1. Hostile Questions: Hostile questions often reflect pent-up anger directed at you simply because you’re a convenient target. “I’ve been dealing with salespeople like you for 30 years, and I’m sick and tired of . . ." is a response that has very little to do with your personal style, personality, or competence.
The key to handling hostility from questioners is to stay in control emotionally. Listen carefully to what is behind or underneath the question. (In the theater, we call this critical information the subtext to what is being spoken aloud.) Try to grasp the emotional context or underlying problem, and address yourself to that as much as possible.
It is essential for you to remember that responding to hostile questions means not losing sight of your objective of persuading your listeners. Your chief purpose is still to advance the goals of your presentation, not to parry your opponents’ attacks with a dazzling display of verbal swashbuckling.
2. Loaded Questions: Loaded questions are exactly what they sound like: explosive. And as the speaker, you are being invited to light the fuse! Since loaded questions are filled with damaging assumptions and conclusions, your job is similar to a Bomb Squad officer’s: You must defuse the charge and bring the situation under control.
Most important, you must recast the assumption that is harming your case into different language. “Well, I can’t agree with your interpretation that . . .” or “First, I have to correct something that you just said,” are two options you can use, or phrasing that is similar.
An important rule: The more damaging the assumption voiced by the questioner (that of course the entire audience hears), the quicker you must refute it. If that means interrupting the questioner in the middle of the so-called-question-but-really-an-attack, go right ahead.
3. Leading Questions: A leading question is one in which the preferred answer is embedded in the question itself. “Isn’t it true that…?” is a classic opening to a leading question, since the questioner obviously believes that “it” is true.
This is a sweet deal for the questioner, since it involves asking and answering the question simultaneously! But you mustn’t let that happen. Again, listen carefully, so that you can hear when the questioner has slipped in his or her own assumptions. That’s the time to recast any damaging assumptions or assertions (see point #2, above).
4. Hypothetical Questions: These are really “swamp” questions, since they usually lead you into a fog-enshrouded bog that’s impossible to find your way out of. So why go there at all?
A simple standard response of, “I can’t answer a hypothetical question like that” should suffice. The one exception to this advice is to go ahead and answer if the hypothetical situation makes a point you’d like to be heard.
For instance, when Condoleezza Rice said the United States would consider it “a grave threat” if North Korea tested a nuclear device, the Bush administration obviously wanted to get that message out. As you can imagine, diplomats and negotiators use this option in responding to hypotheticals all the time.
5. Multifaceted Questions: This too-many-bites-at-the-apple transgression appears frequently, particularly among audience members who enjoy showing off. The challenge here is that the many facets of the question(s), or the sheer length of the diatribe which precedes the actual question (if there is one), can make these interrogatories a real challenge. Even that last sentence tested your patience, didn’t it?
Multifaceted questions can work to your advantage, however. That’s because they allow you to answer as many of the facets as you like while ignoring the rest. If the question is long enough or convoluted, the audience probably won’t notice what you’ve left out!
You can also take advantage of a multifaceted question by going directly to your main talking points, thereby restating your critical message. Again, the questioner has opened the door for you by behaving unreasonably and impractically.
6. Fuzzy Questions: This one is an All-Time-Greatest-Hits candidate for TV interviews and radio call-in shows. When a questioner’s thinking is as sharp as the surface of a tennis ball, you should basically give thanks to your Higher Power, and take your answer in any direction you like. You may also ask for a more targeted question from that person, but why give up the chance to state your message all over again?
7. False Choices: A false choice is an example of a fallacy or an error in reasoning. Here's a typical instance: “Look, we should use the foundation grant for either a new gym or a parking lot. Those are the things we need most for the school, and we can’t afford both. So let’s make up our minds!”
Why are those the only two choices? In reality, there are probably at least a dozen options in such a situation. (How about a performing arts space? A new baseball diamond? Funding an annual field trip or a scholarship?) When someone offers you a false choice, simply point out that there are in fact other alternatives, and then begin to discuss your favorites.
If you find yourself facing any one of these tough kinds of questions, proceed slowly but surely. Hesitancy can be as damaging as handling an answer awkwardly. Let your honesty and goodwill be your guide, as reasonableness will always look better, and convince an audience more surely, than sound and fury in the service of an extreme position.