A successful Q&A session doesn’t happen automatically. It takes hard work, hard preparation beforehand. There are three steps:
Anticipate the questions.
Reach agreement on what the answers should be.
Rehearse the phraseology you will use to properly convey the nuances that are necessary.
Prior to the meeting, write down the questions you expect to be asked. Here is the list that Frank and his team came up with. You can see that many of these questions might fit in anybody’s list, regardless of the subject:
Is this a trend? Can we expect more of the same negative performance?
What steps did management take to improve the situation?
How quickly did you act?
Why didn’t you make changes more quickly?
How does our fund’s performance compare with that of competitive funds?
How will you improve our performance in the future?
What do you see happening in the next year?
Why should we have confidence in you?
What changes have you made in portfolio management?
Is your compensation impacted by the performance of the fund?
What was the biggest lesson learned last year?
But predicting questions is not enough.
How you handle questions determines how the audience feels about everything that preceded it. They recognize it for what it is—it’s the prism through which they evaluate your performance, your message, your competence, your credibility, and the success of the entire meeting.
They know it’s the part of the program that is not scripted. The audience’s attention is at its highest by far. On a one to ten attention scale, the talks that precede the Q&A receive an average of three or four. The Q&A session gets a nine or ten. The audience knows you are on the spot. They see you thinking on your feet. They are impressed when you do well; they are disenchanted when you flub one. But what an opportunity!
Start things off by raising your hand when you ask for questions. This sets the norm for being recognized. You don’t want people calling out questions. When the hands go up in the audience, select one person. This rule helps avoid confusion and increases your control.
You may be saying to yourself, “Wait a minute, I’d feel foolish standing there with my hand up in the air, waiting for questions.” You are right when you say, “waiting for questions,” because you will have to wait. The questions are not spontaneous. It takes approximately fifteen seconds for a normal audience to come up with a question.
Why the delay? Because it takes time to create a question that will sound brilliant to the assembled group. And the person who breaks the ice wants to sound brilliant. So expect the delay and be patient. The questions will come. Let’s consider what to do in those fifteen seconds.
Posture. Right hand up at shoulder level, left hand forward of your body, scanning the audience. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but what’s comfortable? Hands folded in front of you in the “fig leaf” position? That looks weak, tentative. Arms folded across your chest? Now you appear confrontational, aggressive. Hands behind your back, the reverse “fig leaf”? Weak again, unsure. So what to do? Use the posture recommended above. Right hand up in the “questioning” position. Left hand out, scanning the audience. It works. And, with practice, you’ll feel comfortable, and you’ll look strong and in control.
Content. You need to speak during the silence, during the gestation period, while someone in the audience figures out how to phrase a question impressively. But you don’t have to worry too much about content. Say something like, “I’m glad we have this opportunity because I want to hear from you. You’ve heard from me long enough. So please feel free to ask any questions that you may have on your mind. I, in turn, will answer them to the best of my ability. I’m not concerned with controversy, so don’t let that hold you back. The important thing is that we have a dialogue together.”
Notice that there is nothing earth-shattering in what you have said. You are simply keeping the pressure on them, the audience. The ball is in their court, not yours. You are gently giving them time to perform, to do their part. And they will—every time. So don’t panic and say, “Well then, if there are no questions, thank you and good bye.” Just give them a little time.
A hand will appear. The first hand raised can be thought of as a calling card/ice breaker to stimulate others to participate. You note it and say. “I see one hand over here. I will start with that person. Anyone else?” Then another will pop up. You recognize it, “Oh, yes, we have another . . . and another over there. Let’s start with the first person who raised her hand—and your question is?”
The process has begun. From there on it flows naturally. So stop worrying that there will be no questions and that you will look foolish standing there.
Concentrate on the issue, not the answer. What do you think most speakers are doing while someone is asking a question? Thinking of the answer, right? But the speaker who is trying to figure out the answer may miss the issue—which is what the question is all about. The speaker who misses the issue answers the wrong question. The dissatisfied questioner then snaps back, and says, “No, no, that’s not what I asked.” Ouch!
Fix your eyes directly on the person asking the question. Listen for the issue. If the question isn’t clear, ask the person to clarify it: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question.”
It doesn’t matter if the answer is on the tip of your tongue, repeat or rephrase the question. Do it every time. Here’s why: This technique makes you the center of the exchange. You are naturally the source of the answer. By rephrasing, you are also the source of the question as you heard it. This also assures that the audience has heard the question you will answer.
Most importantly, rephrasing creates thinking time for you. The human brain contains something on the order of thirteen billion brain cells (give or take a few). In the time it takes to rephrase, those brain cells are running through your mental files, looking at your storehouse of information from a variety of perspectives, and developing or selecting the answer. They (the brain cells) also are working out proper phraseology so that the answer best fits the context of the meeting.
Simple or nonthreatening questions can be treated in a simple way—repeated or parroted with an uplift of the voice, either using the same words or a slight variation.
Question: How will you improve your performance?
Repeat: How will we improve our performance?
Other questions can be rephrased:
Question: How can we have confidence that you will improve your performance in the future when this year has been so dismal?
Rephrase: Is there reason for confidence in our future together?
Answer briefly, but don’t answer yes or no. The audience wants to hear your thinking. They are not looking for one-word answers; they want a dialogue. They want to get a sense of how you got there, how your mind works. Also, don’t get locked in on one questioner. The audience wants broad audience involvement and so do you. Beware being trapped in a monologue with one persistent questioner.
The final step is to relate your answer to the viewpoint or benefits of your talk. Remember, your purpose in speaking to a group is usually to influence their thinking. That purpose would be the point of your talk. The “tie back” should reinforce that point.