By Laurence Anthony
How many times have you seen a smoothly delivered presentation with great slides and a clear and logical structure suddenly becoming disappointing or disastrous during the Q&A? Everyone has experienced a presentation Q&A session in which an over- enthusiastic presenter dives in with an answer before the audience member has finished what he or she wanted to ask. It is no surprise to find that the answer often has little connection to the question, and the whole interaction has to start again. No doubt, you have also seen many non-native speakers of English give great presentations, but then struggle to answer even simple questions about the content, sometimes giving blunt one word answers, and other times giving long, convoluted answers interspersed with hesitations and false starts.
What can we do as a presenter to improve the Q&A experience? Is there any way the audience members can help to make Q&A a more informative and interactive part of a presentation session? Surprisingly, the popular self-help books on presentation skills offer little advice. When advice is given, it is often on aspects that have been shown to be relatively minor issues in real-world presentations, for example, how to deal with hostile or awkward questions .
In this article, I will discuss some of the important ways both presenters and audience members can work to improve the Q&A experience. The advice is simple and easy to implement, and will be of benefit not only to novices and experts but also those whose native language is not English.
Opening the Q&A session
The presentation is over. The audience starts to applaud. The Chair announces that the Q&A session will now begin. What can you do as a presenter to maximize the Q&A experience?
- Stop fiddling with your notes, slides, computer, or any other device that you may have used during the presentation. Most importantly, stop touching your mouse or cursor buttons, and leave the presentation software alone (on a strong conclusion slide rather than a pointless “Thank you” slide or the even worse black ‘end-of-presentation’ warning screen).
- Make sure you have a pen and paper ready to write down long questions, interesting comments, or any useful notes to help you answer questions. Look around the room at the audience and show that you are interested in them, and are enthusiastic about receiving their questions.
- Establish some ground rules without coming across as pompous or arrogant. For example, politely remind people of the limited time and suggest that they keep to only one question at a time.
Initiating the Q&A interaction
One or two hands start to rise. Or worse, an uncomfortable silence spreads through the audience. What can you do as a presenter to effectively initiate a Q&A interaction?
- Ask the audience if they have any questions and wait. Give people time to formulate questions in their mind. Remember that non-native speakers of English in the audience may take longer to formulate a question. If you want them to participate, wait even longer.
- If no questions are asked, state a question that you anticipated would be asked, and proceed to answer this. Unfortunately, the reality is that if the audience does not have any questions, that is exactly what it means: they have no questions. Perhaps ask the audience a question that you would like to know the
- answer to. Nowhere does it state that Q&A is only in the direction of audience to speaker.
- If no questions are fielded, look around for audience members showing non-verbal signs that they have a question and ask them directly. Remember that asking questions in a large audience can be as nerve wracking as giving a presentation, and people may need a little encouragement.
- Ensure that everyone who wants to has the opportunity to speak. If native speakers have been dominating the Q&A (as often happens with an international audience), try and direct the Q&A initiation directly at the non-native speaker members of the audience.
Managing the Q&A Interaction
Q&A interactions can be complicated events involving long monologues, rapid conversations, and fragmented discussions. What can you do as a presenter to manage a successful Q&A interaction?
- Listen to the question. Many questions are in the form frame > issue > question/comment, where the question is first framed in terms of the presentation structure or slide number, then a problem or issue raised, and finally a question/comment related to the problem issue is asked or stated. Make sure that you listen for the question/comment and do not dive in with an answer as the person is framing the question.
- Think about the intention of the audience member. If the question is confusing due to poor logic or poor English, try to establish what the core elements of the question are. What is the frame? What is the issue? What is the question? What is the questioner really trying to ask?
- If the question is confusing, repeat or paraphrase it so the audience as a whole can understand.
- Try to prevent audience members from asking multiple questions in a single turn by laying down ground rules at the start (see above), or offering to only answer the first question fielded. Nobody likes audience members who
- start out by saying “I have three questions I would like to ask …”
- Try to prevent audience members from entering into long monologues about their own experiences. Although it may be rude to interrupt with the phrase, “Sorry, but what is your question?” the audience as a whole will usually appreciate your management skills.
The most common problem faced by novice presenters is how to deal with questions that they do not know the answer to. What can you do as a presenter to avoid this unpleasant situation? What can you do if you find yourself it it?
If you know the answer, do the following:
- Try to answer clearly and concisely.
- Try to refrain from letting the answer to a question become an excuse for explaining those extra five slides that you prepared, but did not have time to show. Research has shown that Q&A interactions extending over 90 seconds are often problematic.
If you don’t know the answer, do the following:
- Be prepared to admit that you do not know the answer.
- Never bluff.
- Never give your opinion of specific details, such as the number of products sold last year, without supporting evidence.
- Try to respond to the question with relevant information that you do know.
For example, if you do not know the number of products sold last year, but have the data for this year, give it. Most questions relate directly to information on the presentation slides. Before the presentation, think about the “why” behind your methods, results, or interpretations of results. This is sure to come in handy when you do not know the precise information being asked.
If the question is hostile or awkward, do the following:
- Show that you understand and empathize with the questioner.
- Summarize the hostile question in a more positive way.
- Try answering the question without using eye contact and then immediately begin initiating a new Q&A interaction with a different audience member.
Advice for the Audience
Q&A is an interaction between the presenter and members of the audience. What can audience members do to improve the Q&A experience?
- Remember that you are not the only person in the audience with a question. Do not hog the floor by asking double- or triple-barrel questions. Stick to the one turn, one question. Following this rule will also help non-native speaker presenters.
- Write down questions that you have during the presentation, and try to keep to the same wording during the Q&A session. Questions are often phrased in confusing, illogical ways due to nerves on the part of audience members, or as a result of questioners diving in before the question has been properly formed in their heads.
- Remember that short, clear questions are always easier to understand and answer (for both native and non-native speakers) than long, convoluted questions with multiple parts, and multiple paraphrases of the same parts.
- Do not dominate the Q&A session. If no one else is asking questions, it is probably because you are hogging the floor. After you finish your first question, give a little time for others to formulate theirs. This is especially important in an international audience, where non-native speakers may not identity the signals for Q&A interaction termination, and subsequently take longer to respond at the end of a turn.
- Always treat the presenter with respect.
- Do not attack the presenter. Try to frame all questions and comments in a polite manner, even if it is obvious that the presenter has no idea what he or she is doing. Remember that even if the presenter does not understand or accept your valid points, the majority of the audience will. Relax and look forward to the next presentation.
Managing a Q&A session is an incredibly complex and difficult skill to master. However, if presenters and audience members understand the difficulties that both groups face and adopt some of the advice given above, they can start to collaborate to produce a more enjoyable, rewarding, and ultimately successful Q&A experience for all.
* Originally published in the IEEE PCS Newsletter, December 2008/January 2009.
 Anthony, L., Turk, D. C., Yamazaki, A., & T. Orr, Q&A: Published Advice vs. Real- World Difficulties. Proceedings of the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (IEEE IPCC 06), 2006, pp. 11-21.
About the Author: Laurence Anthony is Professor of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics and former Director of the Center for English Language Education (CELESE), Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University, Japan. His main interests are in corpus linguistics tools development and English for Specific Purposes (ESP) program design and teaching methodologies. He is the developer of several corpus tools including AntConc, AntWordProfiler, and TagAnt.