October 24, 2022

The Art of Q&A

Public Speaking , Business Communication , Presentation Tips

It's the rare (and perhaps lucky) person who makes a business presentation and doesn't have to take a few questions. We spend time in many of our programs and in private coaching helping individuals and companies prepare for routine meetings, high-value pitches, town hall meetings, and investor callsand the challenges that come up in those situations. 

While there are a host of techniques you can use to prepare for and field questions, context is important. Here are some considerations that invite your critical thinking.

In a perfect world, how would you like to take questions?

Sometimes, you can instruct an audience on how you'd like to take questions. For example, you might say: I'll leave time at the end of this presentation for your questions, so if you have one please make a note so we can address it then. Or you might prefer to take questions as you go, to engage the audience in a more lively back and forth. Then say so.

In virtual presentations, it can be helpful to pause for questions after each major point you cover, if for no other reason than to keep everyone awake and involved. In a large room with a big audience, you may need a solid and careful plan for taking questions in order to keep things under control.

Best tip here: Think about what will work best and clue your audience into your plan when possible.

Who is asking the question?

When you take questions may very well depend on who is in the room. For example, if a boss or client asks a question while you're presenting, you don't say "Hold that question until the end." You answer their questions when the questions come up.

And if it's a question about a major topic you plan to cover, you might consider advancing to that point immediately. Sometimes a question like that indicates you're giving too much background and not moving to the topics of interest quickly enough.

Best tip here: Don't skip answering if a VIP is asking. Feel free to manage peers and direct reports, if you can. 

What is the purpose of the question?

You're likely to get a variety of types of questions in any presentation, including questions to:

  • Clarify information
  • Explore whether we're getting to the right conclusion
  • Challenge your point of view in a friendly way
  • Challenge your point of view in an unfriendly way
  • Test your knowledge and expertise

As you consider your answer, think about what's driving the question. If you've provided information but you're still getting questions about it, you may need to find a fresh way to restate it or pull in a brief example to illustrate. If you're being challenged in an unfriendly way, you may need to acknowledge that you and your challenger disagree and move on. 

Best tip here: Don't take it personally, even when the question suggests the person hasn't been paying attention or is opposed to your plan. Seek understanding when possible and remain calm and pleasant, even if you have to be firm.

Is there a more important question behind the question?

Sometimes the literal answer to the question isn't the most helpful answer—to your cause or to the person who asked the question. For example, we worked with college admissions counselors on how to answer questions during sessions with parents. One parent asked: Why does tuition cost so much? An admissions counselor explained in great detail how the state legislature meets every year to set tuition. 

We doubt that literal answer provided the information the parent was seeking. It would have been better to talk about tuition relative to other colleges, financial aid options, the value students get—almost anything other than the legislative process for setting tuition.

Best tip here: Consider why the person is asking the question—what might be on their mind—and look for ways to broaden your answer to get at information that's more useful for them and more helpful for you.

Q&A prep is not the same as media training

There are similarities between answering questions in a presentation or meeting and answering questions in a media interview. But there are also key differences.

You're not trying to solve problems with your team or arrive at the best solution in a media interview, for example. And trying to finesse or dodge a difficult question in a work setting can be counterproductive for you and your mission.

There are good skills to be learned, for sure, from media training, so don't discount those. Just be sure to deploy the right techniques at the right time.

Learn more:

Should you repeat the question before you answer it? Get some guidance on that here.

Worried that someone will ask questions just to make you look bad? It can happen. Here's how to approach those challenges.

Preparing for questions in advance can make a world of difference. Find a few of our tips here.

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