Audience as Mentor, Part 2: Q&A is The Audience’s Turn

Q&A belongs to the audience. Accept their invitation to leave a good impression.

In the previous post, I remarked that the question and answer (Q&A) portion of a presentation is a vital component of giving a talk. This is because once you have delivered the talk it becomes the audience’s: they will consider the ideas you presented and how these might inspire them to do something new.

Q&A serves you in two ways: it is your first chance to get a sense of how your talk landed with the audience; and it is your second chance to make sure your message has been heard and interpreted in the way you hope.

But despite the staging being the same as in the talk – you at the front and the audience in their seats – the Q&A is not your domain. It is the audience’s presentation to you of your ideas.

Put audiences first in preparing for and holding yourself in the Q&A. Audiences first design will help you leave a good impression and have your ideas considered in their conversations.

Listen. You might learn something.

You need to listen to the questions, not anticipate the answers. For many speakers, Q&A feels like a conversation in which you are just waiting to talk.

It is easy to do this when you probably do know the answer – all these questions asked in the context of your presentation.

But what if the audience is wanting to expand on your ideas or confront them? If you do not listen carefully, you could derail your entire presentation experience. If you respond with answers that are repetitive but not where the audience wants to go, you will not leave the audience thinking you are of use to them. If your ideas are not responsive to their interest, why should they consider you further? Worse, you could antagonize the audience by suggesting you do not care about them (even if you are not nasty in your tone). Having yourself associated with a bad experience will limit your future opportunities.

So listen to the questions. Process the questions in your mind – consider how they relate to your ideas, as opposed to choosing which of your ideas you’ll throw out quickly. Thank the audience for the question. Then proceed to build on your ideas and their ideas. It’s their presentation at this point.

Respond with welcoming patience. You might learn something.

I understand that it can be frustrating to have a question that suggests the asker did not listen to your presentation. You want to quickly throw out what you already said, then move onto another question that is hopefully more interesting to you.

But think of it this way: if someone is asking you an “obvious” question, that means your presentation did not make the answer obvious.

Some aspect of your talk was not captivating enough for this audience member. There might well be other members of that audience who did not capture the idea either. But at least one person is taking the time to ask you. Do not squander the opportunity.

Reply in a different way than you presented. If there was an example that you edited out, draw on this now. If the forum allows for the questioner to ask a follow up, invite them to do so. Listen again. Respond to move the ideas forward.

If you snark and scoff that the answer was obvious from your presentation, chances are good you will not be invited back to that venue.

Invite continued discussion. You might learn something.

You know the feeling when you’re having a good conversation and you want it to keep going, but time is running out? Typically you say something like “this has been great, let’s continue this later when there’s more time.” Then you exchange contact information.

While the Q&A belongs to the audience there is one advantage you have as a speaker to keep your ideas relevant: clearly and repeatedly present your contact information. 

Of course you have done this in your talk already 😉 Perhaps it’s on the slide that stays up through the Q&A. This way throughout the Q&A anyone in the audience who might not want to ask their question in public knows what option to use. If someone hears a question/answer exchange that gets them thinking they’d like to get in touch, you’ve made it easy for them.

But just because you have made it easy for them to see who to contact, invite them to contact you.

Be obvious – point to the slide. If the venue does not allow your last slide to stay on screen, repeat the single best option (Email, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) so it’s easily written down. Invite people to contact you and welcome the continued discussion.

After all, this was the whole point of giving your talk: to have your ideas at least become and remain part of the audience’s future conversations. Here is a golden opportunity to actually be part of those conversations – make it easy to start.

Listen. You might learn something.

Implicit through these tips is that Q&A is your opportunity to learn how the audience took in your talk. Use that experience to make your next talk better.

If the questions were “obvious” you need to revise your presentation to make the content more clear. Fortunately you had the opportunity to have the audience present a mirror to your talk. Do not waste that wealth of feedback.

If the questions built on how you presented, you have a set of leads to consider for a subsequent presentation. If you get a follow-up slot with this venue, you already know what ideas to focus on. If you get a similar gig, seed these questions in the revised talk so that you guide the Q&A to that productive place.

Put audiences first in Q&A. You might learn something.

Just as you hope to spark new ideas in your audience, they can often spark new ideas in you. Right after the Q&A, take a moment to make some notes (written or recorded through a voice memo) so the insight flashes are not lost.

This is why I consider the audience to be the best mentor for any speaker: they truly give you feedback on where your ideas might go and they could be the porter to gates of opportunity you did not get to on your own.

The best presentations are the start of conversations. Hold yourself accordingly.

woman with white shirt raising her right hand
Photo by Josh Sorenson on

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