Each time you make a presentation, you have a decision to make about how to handle questions. Will you take them throughout your remarks? Will you ask people to hold their questions until you have finished delivering your information? Will you announce a specific time for Q & A?
Q: Which option is best?
A: Although it depends somewhat on the format of your presentation, the size of the audience and the venue in which you're presenting, my bias is to welcome questions at anytime during your presentation. Questions demonstrate that the audience is engaged and stimulated by what you're saying. Why would you stifle that by doggedly sticking to a predetermined script?
Q: Won't questions throw me off track and potentially cause me to miss some of my key points?
A: If you are well prepared, have streamlined your content to one main point with a couple or three sub points and anticipated what questions the audience may ask, you likely won't be thrown off track. You can weave some of your points or supporting information into the answers you give and comfortably segue back to your planned outline. In most cases, a lively discussion with audience members will be more fulfilling and engaging for all as you will be meeting their needs for specific information.
Q: How do I handle a hostile question?
A: With respect. Acknowledge the questioner's difference of opinion or emotional reaction. Don't engage in argumentative dialogue or meet him on the emotional battlefield. If you think his opinion is representative of the majority of the audience, it might be best to open up the discussion and let others weigh in, although this will certainly depend on how comfortable you feel managing that interaction. If his opinion isn't representative, asking the audience to weigh in can take the "monkey" off your back and allow his peer group to suggest other perspectives. Another viable alternative is to invite the questioner to continue the discussion with you after the presentation.
Q: How do I keep the rest of the audience involved when one person asks a long-winded question?
A: Once you get the gist of the question, break in at an appropriate place and use your skills of paraphrasing and summarizing to concisely re-state the question. This ensures that the audience hears and understands the question. Then ask the audience what they think or what they'd do. This will involve others and spread the interaction among more people.
Q: What do I do if I don't know the answer to a question?
A: This is a big fear for many presenters. The best advice is to not bluff your way through what will end up being an inadequate response. Acknowledge that you don't know the answer but offer to find it out and get back to the questioner, put them in touch with someone who does know or refer them to resources where they can find the answer.
Q: How do I end a Q & A session, especially when many people still want to ask questions?
A: Never, ever let the Q & A session be the end to your presentation. Always take back the floor, even if it's only for a couple of minutes, and conclude your remarks with the key thing you want your audience to walk away with. Ask yourself, "What is the one thing I want people to remember from this presentation next week or next month?" Invite people who still have questions to come up and speak with you after the presentation or, if that's not feasible, offer to chat with them by phone or email.
Questions are the lifeblood of any presentation. Invite them, embrace them and worry when there aren't any.
What other techniques have you used to encourage and manage questions in your presentations?