In Praise of Q&A

At a recent conference, I ran into the organizer at the first coffee break of the morning. She was fuming.

“They keynote.” She growled.

“What? It was a strong talk.”

“She ran short! It was a 20 minute talk!”

“She did Q&A and we ended on time.”

“She ran short! It was half a keynote! It could have been a disaster!”

“But it wasn’t.”

Being a conference organizer is stressful.

If a speaker runs short, it’s a problem. Had the keynote speaker not taken Q&A for another 25 minutes, the attendees would have headed out to the morning break. The food and coffee wouldn’t have been fully set up yet, so attendees would complain. Any goodwill created by the first session would have dissipated as people began to check email and make phone calls.

When speakers run long it’s worse. The entire day can be disrupted, resulting in late lunches and receptions and crabby attendees. A speaker’s job is to land her talk within 5 minutes of the designated ending.

The solution to running short or long is simple. Plan to to hold a Question & Answer session at the end of the talk. If you have a 45 minute talk, you can plan to give it in 35 minutes. If you run long you’ll just answer fewer questions. If you are nervous and talk quickly, you answer more.

Yet it’s become fashionable to skip Q&A. I think this is a mistake. It’s a disservice to the audience and to yourself.

I made the exact same mistake as the keynote speaker in my story the first time I performed The Executioner’s Tale. I gave a 20 minute talk in is 45 minute slot. But there were a ton of questions at the end, and like the keynoter above, I used rest of the time to answer them.

The questions themselves were a revelation. I learned all the places in the talk where I was unclear and where I might elaborate. The audience taught me how to make my talk better.

Own Your Q&A Session

Maybe it’s my love of improv, but I always enjoy Q&A. I like to break down the weird barrier between me and the audience, and really get to talk to them.

Here’s some ways to make it run smoothly.

  • Give the audience time to form a question.
    Time runs differently on stage. What seems like an eternity onstage is only seconds to the audience. I know a speaker who says, all in one breath, “OkAnyQuestions?I’veClearlyStunnedYouIntoSubmission.ThankYou!” and dashes off stage like the hounds of hell are chasing her.

People in the audience need a moment to gather their thoughts. Try warning the audience that Q&A is coming, e.g. “We’re going to have Q&A now. Please line up at the microphones in the aisles. If you have any questions about my key points, X, Y or Z, I’d love to hear them!”

An economics professor I know gave me the advice, “Get good at being comfortable with uncomfortable silences. Be patient, and let students think.” It’s the same for audiences.

I wait for a full ten seconds, counting silently, “One-mississippi, Two-mississippi…” because I know what feels like ten minutes to me in the spotlight is only seconds to them. Then I look at the audience, to make sure no one is starting to raise their hands tentatively. If I see the half-lift, I give a smile and nod to them to encourage them.

  • Answer the question you wish you were asked.
    In my years speaking, I’ve been asked incoherent questions, rude questions and off-topic questions. Luckily, in a previous job, I was given media training. The only thing that stuck was the old adage, “answer the question you wished you were asked.”

When asked a stinky question, I ask myself, if that was a good question, what would it be? Then I answer the good one. If I badly misread the questioner’s intent, they’ll stalk me down at the pastry table during the break. It’s more important to respect the needs of the room full of people listening to my answer. Which leads me to…

  • Don’t let the questioner become the presenter.
    If someone is taking the scenic route to the question, you have every right to interrupt and ask “I’m sorry, maybe I’m confused. Could you restate your question?” If someone says, “This is more of an observation than a question,” you can stop them after the first sentence or two and say, “that’s fascinating, but I know there are a lot of folks with questions and I’d like to get to as many as possible. Let’s talk further after?” It’s even easier when there is a line for the mic you can’t point to as proof.
    It is your responsibility to the audience to manage the folks who wish they were the one on stage.
  • Don’t turn Q&A into debate.
    If the questioner has control of the microphone, he may choose to disagree with your answer or want to ask follow-up questions. I’ve seen a question turn into an attempt to get free consulting. Out of respect for the audience, don’t let anyone be a microphone hog. Answer one follow-up question if you wish, but then use the same explanation, “I want to make sure I get to as many people as possible.” If they disagree, I recommend saying “Thank you for that. Any other questions?”
  • Visibly enjoy the questions.
    Most of your questioners are from people who loved your talk and want to learn more. They are your acolytes. Treat them well, and they’ll become your fans. Very rarely is a questioner an interrogator or a spotlight thief. Smile, listen closely, and treat each person your new friend. Keeping it classy makes it safe for others to ask questions as well.
  • End on a high note.
    When I’m doing Q&A, I’ll seek to finish on an inspiring or hopeful answer. Then, even if I have a few more minutes, I’ll wrap there. It’s good to leave folks feeling good.

David Nihill, in his book “Do You Talk Funny” recommends having a final slide where you sum up your key points that you return to after Q&A. This allows you to finish with a prepared final word. I haven’t tried it, but I will…

A year after my unfortunate delivery of The Executioner’s Tale in 20 minutes, I gave it again in South America. I finished neatly at the 35 minute mark and asked if there were any questions. No one raised their hands.

Damn, was I going to end ten minutes early? Would that be okay?

I looked at the audience and saw they were leaning forward, clearly engaged. I wondered if the lack of questions was a cultural issue. Were they afraid to ask a question in English?

So I asked them, “Do you want to know what the most common questions I get about OKRs?”

The audience roared out a yes, and I ran a one-woman Q&A session. I knew what people always ask about OKRs from previous Q&A sessions, and I had good answers. When I finally said my thank yous, the room thundered with applause.

Give a Q&A a Chance

No talk is perfect. Every audience is different, and you can’t predict with 100% certainty what they understand and what they won’t. Give people a chance to get clarification.

You are not a robot. You can’t give the same performance perfectly every time. Some days you’ll drink too much coffee and talk too fast. Other days you’ll be tired (or jetlagged) and run long. Some days it’s the guy who speaks right before that will run long. You might be able to destress the organizer with your masterful use of Q&A.

Don’ t be afraid of Q&A. Don’t throw away its many benefits. Be brave and let your audience talk back to you.

You might learn something.