Wednesday, April 15, 2015

From the vault: Got lots to say? Save it for the Q&A

(Editor's note: This 2010 post is a process I use for my own presentations: Start by planning the Q&A first, then work on your formal content. It's a great way to look smart when question time rolls around.)

I facilitated a workshop for scientists on communicating their research to public audiences, and asked a colleague to sit in to observe me and provide feedback (something you should do from time to time to ensure your ongoing development as a speaker).  One aspect he liked was an open-ended section, late in the day, when we were reviewing as a group short videos of some of the participants attempting to deliver messages they'd created early in the day.  The videos offered a jumping-off point for me -- and all the participants -- to share what we noticed in each video.  And those observations allowed me, as facilitator, to share more concrete tips and advice.

So a video showing someone um-ing their way through a message let me talk about ums, why they're natural and how to replace them with time-buying phrases.  A question about "Was I gesturing too much?" let me talk about planning gestures, just as you plan what you want to say.  Another question, "What should I do with my hands?" led to a demonstration of how to avoid immobilizing your hands, something that leads to more ums and speaking stumbles.

My observer said he loved how I was able to weave so many facts into the Q&A. It made me look knowledgeable, but also reached audience members right at the moment where they were learning something new and needed to know more about the next step to take. 

For many presenters, the goal is to show what they know, and they choose to do that in their "main" speech or presentation. But I make a point of holding dozens and dozens of facts in reserve, ready to emerge during the question-and-answer session. Even though this workshop lasts a day, I know going into it that there's no way for me to share an exhaustive knowledge base with my participants. We'll go "a mile wide and an inch deep," I tell them, and give them a good start. I could try to cram the facts into other parts of the day, but leaving them the chance to come out during the Q&A puts the participants in the driver's seat.  As the speaker, you can still look smart--and your audience can get in those questions at the time of their choosing, when your facts are most likely to hit home.

The bonus: This is a smart tactic for organizing a talk or presentation when you feel as if you have too many facts for the time allotted. Make sure you leave half your time for questions, and decide what to hold in reserve. I start with the information I'm sure that people will ask about, which ensures engagement and participation. Try this for your next presentation.

Related posts:  How to listen to audience questions

Graceful ways with Q&A

(Creative Commons licensed photo by rosarodoe with words added)

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