Public Speaking Success: Preparing for a Question and Answer Session

Getting up in front of an audience and speaking is a challenge in itself. Having to answer questions in front of an audience makes it even tougher. The good news is that with proper preparation, you can eliminate most of the stress that comes along with answering questions in a group setting. Here are some of my favorite tips for Q&A:

Know your topic:

You’ve been invited to speak for a reason and that reason typically is that you have knowledge or experiences that someone else felt would be beneficial for you to share with a group. If you’re speaking on a topic that you haven’t recently kept up with, then brush up on it. Visit web sites, read magazines and ask people around you about the subject so you know what the current buzz is.

When I talk about public speaking, the material and techniques that I teach don’t change dramatically over time. But names and faces do. Politicians give stump speeches and entertainers give interviews, each of which makes the news if it’s particularly good or unusually bad. So it’s not uncommon for someone to ask me what I think of a newsmaker’s speaking style. We all get our news and information from a variety of sources so it’s important to be aware of stories in the mainstream media related to your topic.

Know your audience:

Understanding your audience is a necessity for any successful talk. It’s especially important for Q&A sessions because your audience may be looking for information about your topic, but from a particular viewpoint. Many speakers have a speech that they are comfortable with and give it to several different audiences. This is fine if your audiences regularly consist of people that fall into the same category – for example, if you speak to audiences made up of loan officers for banks.

This won’t work if you have a generic speech and you give it to college students, business organizations and companies in a variety of different industries. By tweaking your speech to meet your audience’s needs and interests, the questions will be easier for you to answer: you’ll be asked to elaborate more on a point or repeat it versus having someone ask you how your topic can apply to their situation. Providing more information is less stressful than trying to explain points that the audience feels should have been in your speech to begin with.

Anticipate questions:

Like any other situation that you interact with people, you know you’ll be asked questions when you give a speech. Being able to anticipate the questions you’ll be asked will help in you in the long run. Even if you never get asked the question, your self-perception of your knowledge in your topic increases. That translates to more confidence in your subject, which will help you when it’s time to give your speech.

A simple exercise to help you do this is to imagine that you’re an audience member. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I expect to learn from listening to this talk?
  • What are some of the things I can take away from this presentation?
  • How can I apply this material to my own situation?
  • What do some of the technical terms or industry jargon mean?

As you answer these questions (and keep in mind that since every speech is different, not all of these questions may apply), think of the parts of your speech that the audience may be interested in, unclear on or unfamiliar with. This is where you’ll start to begin identifying questions. Are you using acronyms that people in the audience may not understand? Are you taking an unusual or controversial position on something? Why did you write this talk? What got you interested in the subject?

Use these questions to identify potential questions from the audience. Then write down the questions and the answers and use it as a cheat sheet that you can refer to during your speech (keep it in an inconspicuous place on the podium or lectern) or to review prior to giving your talk.

Understanding what your audience expects to gain from listening to you will clue you in on the types of questions they might ask. Many experienced speakers leave out information in their talks either due to time limits or because it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the speech. But they keep that information in their back pocket knowing that it might come up in a Q&A session.

Practice with a mock audience:

A mock audience can help you identify parts of your speech that aren’t clear or need to be refined – both of which prompt questions that may embarrass a speaker when he or she is asked them. They will also ask questions (which is especially helpful if you ask them to role play as members of your target audience) that may show areas of your talk that you need to improve or elaborate on.

When time permits, I try new material out on a Toastmasters club. Even if the audience doesn’t match the profile of my target audience, they will often ask questions that I don’t expect – which aids me in my Q&A preparation.

Preparing for a Q&A session can seem like a stressful experience, but a little preparation can go a long way.

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