How to plan and hold a Q&A session

Emily Bartlett Feb 2, 2022 3:19:01 PM


A great speech starts with a cracking opener. But how should it end? Question and answer sessions get the audience involved and prove you're interested in conversing – rather than simply lecturing – on your topic.

Preparing your speech is easier than predicting what your audience might ask.

But there are things you can do, before and during your talk, to make the time set aside for questions much more enjoyable.

1. Do your research

World leaders, business tycoons and public presenters can deliver a speech without research. Any politician worth their salt employs a professional speech writer.

But when it comes to holding a Q&A session, preparation is a non-negotiable must. And sometimes the little things make a big difference.

Are you speaking at a venue that has a moderator and a regular crowd? What could the moderator tell you in advance about the audience?

And what about the venue? A tip such as 'questions from the left side of the room can be a little harder to hear' can be a small but useful gift.

2. Ask some questions of your own

Are you speaking at a formal event, or something more casual? Is the crowd huge, or small and intimate? Has the presentation started on time?

The answers to these questions will help you plan for a Q&A.

If you started late, be ready to keep your answers crisp and to the point so you don't overrun.

Small crowd? Answer the question, but why not follow up with one of your own? Sure, you want to keep the momentum, but a brief conversation can be great for the room.

3. Take notes as you go

During your speech, keep an eye on the faces in the crowd. When you find a point that resonates, make a quick mark on your notes.

This helps you easily refer back to the point if you receive a question about it later.

It's also a great learning opportunity. Whatever you said at that point clearly made a strong impression, and that's great to know for next time around.

4. Spot and connect similar points

In theory, a Q&A session is a series of random or loosely related questions. But, given all audience members are listening to the same talk, a pattern soon emerges.

Sometimes these threads will be obvious, such as: 'What you said in your answer to the last question made me wonder, what do you think about X?'

Sometimes it'll be a simple case of repetition. People are waiting nervously to speak and don't always realise somebody else has asked their question. Here's how you could deal with that:

Thank you. Your question about New York's small business landscape brings us back to our earlier conversation about Boston. I think these two cities are in a similar situation right now so, actually, when I spoke about a plan for New York earlier, we can easily talk about a broader East Coast strategy instead.

5. Deal with hecklers politely 

Never work with children or animals. You could be forgiven for extending that old maxim to 'the public'. Anything can happen once an audience member feels the power of the mic in their hand.

In reality, most Q&A sessions are drama free. Now and then, though, someone will ask a difficult question or take offence to something you've said.

If they refuse to let you answer them in a civil way, and things get out of hand, there's only one thing you can do.

Smile, acknowledge them politely, and agree that they have a right to their opinion and a right to have it heard. But insist that this isn't the right time or way to raise it.

Offer to speak with them after the Q&A, if you're comfortable with that. Then apologise to the rest of the audience and continue.