are you prepared for q and aImage credit: NAVFAC ( via Flickr

Your pulse quickens, your eyelid twitches, your mind races. A stranger in the audience has just accused you and your company of intentionally lying to the public. How do you respond? If you have ever faced an audience unprepared for their questions, you undoubtedly know the fear certain questions can ignite.

Through my work teaching executive speaking skills to countless leaders and sales professionals in hundreds of corporations and organizations, I have come in contact with people from around the world, and continue to be impressed with their keen interest in what it takes to build a relationship with members of their audience, open closed minds, and initiate action. Many profess they spend hours working on a prepared presentation, only to find their hopes for a positive outcome dashed in the last fifteen minutes of their meeting, the time often recommended be set aside to respond to questions from the audience. The fact that you are reading this article indicates that you can probably identify with their disappointment at falling short of the mark, either because you’ve experienced it personally or you’ve witnessed it in others.

Why is it that so many people neglect to prepare for Q & A? The three reasons I’ve heard most often are:
1) “It simply doesn’t occur to me,”
2) “I’m better when I wing it,” and
3) “It seems like a waste of time to prepare for questions I rarely get.”

From my experience, none of those reasons hold water. If someone says it didn’t occur to them, it tells me that they aren’t thinking ahead. These people are typically not your heavy hitters and probably won’t move forward with velocity in their chosen careers, if at all. It would suggest that instead of thinking, they’re filling time.

Those who like to wing it have never discovered the difference adequate preparation makes to their success. They may be successful early on in their careers, but at some point, as they move up the ladder, expected to solve more complex problems, inadequate preparation will catch up with them.

As for those who feel it’s a waste of time to prepare for questions they rarely get, they’ve not considered they may be part of the problem, not the solution, for several possible reasons:

• They never captured audience attention
• They never connected with the audience and got buy-in up front
• They didn’t do their homework
• They didn’t speak to the needs and interests of their audience
• They didn’t have a clear objective
• They didn’t have a clear main message
• They failed to provide a compelling argument
• They failed to maintain attention
• Their delivery was boring
• They had no clear call-to-action
• They didn’t ask for questions in a way that guarantees they’d get them
• They didn’t know how to respond to questions to maintain interest

The list goes on.

You may be successful in delivering a well-prepared and rehearsed presentation, but to ensure it doesn’t fall flat in the final fifteen minutes, you must be prepared for the Q & A.

Most people live under the illusion of understanding. You may think that because you verbally expressed an idea, you were heard and understood by your audience, be it customer, client, vendor, management or senior leaders. Not necessarily so.

Information cannot flow into a closed vessel. Two-way communication is critical to keeping open the channel between presenter and audience member. Research indicates that people tend to hear about 25% of what is said, and remember even less. Therefore, it is possible that the audience did not hear your most convincing facts and figures. Even if they did hear, they may not agree with you. Whatever the case, a well-handled Q & A for which you have adequately prepared can provide many benefits.

It can:
• Ensure understanding
• Let you know how the audience feels about you and/or your ideas
• Provide an opportunity to clarify information or fill in needed details
• Acknowledge the audience and provide a chance for them to air their concerns
• Give audience members a forum to exchange their ideas and viewpoints
• Give you additional opportunity to sell your idea
• Provide direction for your next presentation
• Allow you to further develop a relationship with the audience
• Increase your credibility and the credibility of your organization
• And so much more…

A mishandled Q & A (or a failure to generate discussion) can undermine an otherwise excellent presentation.

A perfect example of large-scale lack of adequate preparation for Q & A is a large utility company that was receiving bad press. Several people from the company had been speaking on behalf of the organization. Unfortunately, the press uncovered inconsistencies in the responses to the questions they were being asked. Reporters were having a field day exposing the discrepancies on the front page of the local papers.

The company hired a high-priced consultant who offered a simple suggestion. He recommended the company bring all of their spokespersons together for a brainstorming meeting. At that meeting, they were to identify every question any of them had ever been asked.

After the questions had been identified, he recommended that the company compile all the questions, along with the company’s preferred responses to each question. Then, before anyone could speak on behalf of the company, that person had to be able to answer all the questions in a manner that demonstrated a clear understanding of the company position.

The company followed the consultant’s advice, and the results were favorable.

Take heed. It always pays to prepare, including for Q & A.

All comments are welcome.

© 2015 Mary Jane Mapes All rights reserved.

To learn more about adequate preparation, check out another blog post I wrote titled, Leaders: Want a Secret to Real Influence?

Want to know more about handling difficult people, sensitive situations, and tough questions? Check out my book The Art of Fielding Questions with Finesse.  For tips on effective presentations visit

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