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Handling Q&A Sessions Effectively

Never let them see you sweat.

Helen Modly, 07/31/2008

It is the chance of a lifetime. After months of relationship building and proposal development, you are finally giving a presentation to the audience you've been courting.

It might be a group of accountants, a seminar full of qualified prospective clients, or the final decision-makers of a foundation or retirement-plan investment committee. Your PowerPoint slides were right on target, you never fumbled with your notes and your eye contact was good. The only thing left is the few minutes you've been allotted for questions, so you're essentially done, right? Don't take that sigh of relief just yet. The next few minutes can, and often do, completely undermine an otherwise effective presentation.

Consider this all too common scenario. You ask if there are any questions and before you finish your sentence, someone calls out with what I call a negative question. We all know these when we hear them. They may sound something like, "But, isn't it true that-- ?", or "Why haven't you considered --?", or "What about--?" Without warning, you are thrust into a defensive stance and the glow of success fades. Little beads of sweat form on your upper lip as you try to pivot quickly from the mental state of post-performance relaxation to the stress of handling objections. You frantically attempt to reorder your mind to deliver a response and the same questioner comes back with a "Yeah, but--" and the debate is on.

Stay 'On-Stage'
Realize that the Q&A session is part of your presentation and may even be the most challenging part, so don't allow yourself to relax after that last slide. Keeping your mind "on-stage" will help you to maintain control of this final segment. Your goal during the Q&A session will be to reinforce your core points, and to enhance your credibility by the manner in which you handle questions.

Raise Your Hand
A technique to keep people from shouting out questions, rather than allowing you to call on selected people, is to raise your hand while you ask for questions. This will create the expectation that your audience will raise their hands before asking a question. This is a tried and true technique developed by kindergarten teachers; you will be amazed how effective it is in controlling any type of presentation, whether formal or informal.

Be Prepared
Just as with any other emergency response, training and preparation is the key to being effective. During the preparation of your presentation, you must identify all the negative reactions or objections that you can. If you can build your responses to them into your presentation, you can prevent many of these negative questions from ever being asked.

Comments such as, "Even though some academics still argue that X is true, more recent research supports that Y is true, because--". Or, "We considered X, but because of Y's better results, we are recommending Y," and "During the development of our proposal, we also addressed the issues of X, Y, and Z and found that our recommendation is superior because--." This form of pre-emptive response is the most effective because you actually control the presentation of the objection and its response yourself. This allows you to control the timing and the phrasing of the objective, thus increasing the likelihood that your response will be accepted positively.

Avoid the Deadly One-on-One
The biggest danger of the above scenario is not that you cannot overcome the objection posed as a negative question, but that you get trapped into a one-on-one conversation with the questioner that leaves out the rest of your audience. In the worst cases, the question and the follow-up comments from the questioner cannot even be heard by the rest of the audience. Your audience quickly loses interest and your presentation just ended on a sour note. The last image they have is of you, on the defensive, wrestling with an unheard objection.

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