Audience as Mentor Part 3: Prepare to Discuss, Not Lecture

In the previous two posts, I’ve noted that the question and answer time (Q&A) is the audience’s turn to speak, when you should listen to the audience. Let me say that again – your talk is when you speak to inform, Q&A is when you listen to inform.

But how do you prepare content when you are not “in charge” of what questions get asked?

Well, you have already prepared that content – very consciously in one sense and depending on how your write talks, unconsciously in another. You just need to think of how you prepare your talk in all the right ways.

Q&A is a direct result of your presentation content.

The consciously known source of content for Q&A is simply the talk itself. Obvious right?

But it might not seem like that if you get a question that sounds like it has nothing to do with your presentation. For example you’re giving a talk about how fashion crazes led to a new industrial sector and you get questions about public health campaigns.*

Two things could be happening here: your talk did not make the central idea clear and/or that individual audience member latched onto a smaller piece of your talk and that spawned a fervent question in their mind.

Either way, the shared context is your talk. Therefore you know what content to use to reply: what was in your talk. If you have to repeat because you were not clear to at least this person, here’s a great opportunity to be more clear, if only in repetition. If they are curious about a smaller aspect of your talk, use your answer to acknowledge their curiosity spawned by your talk, and note how yes, that sort of idea is possible because of the central question.

Remember to take a cue from improv and use a “yes, and” style to your response. You are guiding discussion in Q&A, not lecturing. Welcome the opportunity to continue the discussion. This will improve the chance of your content inspiring the audience and you being invited to give more talks, as such a courteous and engaging speaker.

So your talk itself is the conscious preparation for Q&A. As for the unconscious:

Great talks are made in editing.

Based on the experiences I have had working with various clients, either one-on-one or in workshops, along with my personal experiences writing talks, I find the below process results in high quality presentations:

  1. consider who the audience is
  2. set 1-3 goals for the talk, given the audience
  3. make a list of everything you think relevant
  4. structure this list into an outline editing to what flows best
  5. draft your talk
  6. practice it once
  7. edit out what does not work for style and flow
  8. practice again
  9. edit for time
  10. practice until you have it down, possibly with tweak edits

(By the way, if this process looks like one that could help your talks, contact me!) 

There are at least 4 steps that include editing in the entire process. Great talks are made in editing because with trying variations you get a sense of what works for the flow and making the central idea(s) most apparent. That lesson was the theme of a series of posts on one of my research talks.

In editing, you should cut far more than you add. No one will fault you for using less time. Besides, it allows more time for the audience’s turn with Q&A.

Now here is a huge benefit of editing: all those snippets on the cutting room floor could be used to respond in Q&A.

That content may not be as well refined as the talk itself, but because at one point it was perhaps relevant, you’ve developed it to a certain point. The key is, bring back content if the audience asks for it. That is essentially the function of Q&A.

When I’m coaching speakers through the revision stage, and tell them they need to cut content either for time or lack of flow, I assure them that a cut need not be final. They can keep those ideas in their “back pocket” to be ready for Q&A if the audience decides to go there.

Q&A is a second talk, this time led by the audience instead of the speaker.

Q&A is when the audience lets the speaker know where they want the discussion to go next. Chances are some of the questions will pursue ideas that already occurred to you but you cut them in editing.

This is what I mean by unconscious preparation. During the talk’s development, you consciously decided to set that content aside. After spending a good amount of time consciously practicing to deliver what remains (the talk), chances are this edited content lingers at best on the edge of your focus. But recognize that unconsciously regarded content can be just the answer to move the discussion forward if the audience asks for it.

All of your content prepares you for Q&A; your talk is the most clear content.

So here is a way to prepare both a better talk and set up a great Q&A:

During the talk’s development, if you are having trouble figuring out how to include an idea, cut it. If the audience finds it lacking, they will ask a question. You have a (semi-) prepared answer all ready!

Emphasis here is if the audience asks for it. Your talk becomes their talk, and that baton passes during the Q&A. Prepare your talk well, and your momentum will propel the audience forward.

Photo courtesy of Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences.

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