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Making the Most of Q&A

Christopher Witt —  December 4, 2014

Encourage audiences to ask questionsQ&A is one of the most engaging, powerful, and effective elements of a presentation.

And yet many presenters (especially technical experts) avoid Q&A, mostly out of fear that they’ll be asked a question they can’t answer.

Addressing your audience’s questions makes them feel like participants, not passive recipients of your wisdom from on high. Their questions let you gauge how well they understand and accept your ideas.

I used to be happy with my presentations when the audience didn’t ask any questions. Their silence, I thought, meant that they understood and agreed with what I had said.

Now I think that an audience’s lack of questions means that they are so confused or so uninterested that they can’t be bothered.

Stirring the audience up and making them want to ask questions is a good thing. Knowing how to respond in a way that feeds their interest and drives home your message is even better.

Guidelines for Handling Q&A Effectively

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What could a late-night comic teach a beginning public speaking? As it turns out, quite a lot.

I had a hard time getting started as a public speaker.

I was terrified, stiff, and awkward. I made embarrassing verbal blunders, which made me more terrified, stiff, and awkward.

I would prepare and rehearse — over-prepare and over-rehearse — my speeches.

I would deliver them from memory. And I was happy if I got through the whole thing without some major mishap.

At the time I thought a speech was a transfer of content from me (the person who knows) to the audience (the passive recipients).

As long as I had good stuff to present and got it all said, I thought my speech was a success.

One of my speech teachers turned my thinking around.

He helped me realize that my saying that I thought needed to be said wasn’t as important as the audience hearing what they needed to know.

And he taught me that lesson in a strange way.

He asked me who my favorite comedian was. I said Johnny Carson. (Obviously, this was many, many years ago.)

He told me to watch Carson’s opening monologue on The Tonight Show for a week, and see what I learned.

What did Johnny Carson do that made him so funny?

Here’s what I learned: It wasn’t his material. His jokes were sometimes very funny, sometimes not.

What made him funny was his interplay with the audience.

He’d throw out a joke. If people laughed, he smiled. If they didn’t laugh, he’d look pained. If they groaned, that’s when he would come into his own.

Carson played with the audience. And together he and audience often created something much funnier than before.

Johnny Carson taught me the importance of interacting with the audience. He taught me

  1. To present an idea, one piece at a time.
  2. To watch how my audience reacted to what I said. Did they get it? Were they with me? Did they smile and nod, or cross their arms and crease their foreheads?
  3. To respond to their response. If they didn’t get or didn’t agree with what I said, I couldn’t simply plunge on with my prepared remarks. I had to acknowledge and engage them.
  4. To treat a monologue (i.e. a speech) always as a dialogue, and to keep it lively.

A speech isn’t the content you deliver to the audience. A speech is how the audience interacts with you and your ideas in order to come to their own understanding.

Don't speak without a reasonPeople are giving too many speeches these days. Way too many. And it’s gotta stop.

Don’t get me wrong. I love speeches–good ones, anyway–and I believe that speeches are a great way to influence and inspire audiences. But people, especially leaders, are giving too many speeches and, by doing so, lessening their impact.

Here are 7 Reasons NOT to Give a Speech

1. You don’t have anything to say.

If you don’t have something intelligent, insightful, or helpful to say to a particular audience — or anything they haven’t heard before and already know — it would be better to say nothing at all.

2. It’s not the right time.

When do you address a pressing issue, a crisis, or a traumatic event? Do you speak when emotions are at a fever pitch, when wounds are fresh, or do you wait a while? And when it is too late? It takes wisdom to know when to speak and when to keep silent.

3. It’s not the right audience.

Don’t waste your time, consideration, and effort speaking to people who have no investment in you or your message, or who are clearly hostile and closed-minded. “Know your audience” is one of the most universally applicable pieces of advice when it comes to speaking. A corollary is, “Know which audiences aren’t your audience.”

4. It’s not the right event.

Most speakers underestimate the impact of the event in determining the success of their speeches. Before you agree to give a speech, find out 1) the schedule (when you’ll speak and what happens before, during, and after your speech, 2) the sponsoring organization, 3) the venue, 4) the room layout, and 5) physical factors (e.g. microphones, lighting, stage). I’ve been there, I know: some events are so poorly organized or present a different image from what you want to be associated with. If so, just say “no.”

5. You’re not the right person.

Just as some audiences aren’t right for you, you aren’t right for some audiences. Your unique values, interests, approach, personality, reputation, and style always come across in your speaking. (If they don’t, you’re doing something very, very wrong.) If you haven’t figured this out by now, I don’t know how to break it to you: not everyone will like you or trust you or be receptive to what you say. Vive la difference! Let someone else speak to them.

6. You don’t have the time.

Preparing a speech (a good one, anyway) requires time. Time to research your topic and your audience. Time to ponder. Time to craft your message and refine it. Time to rehearse it. If you don’t take the time, you’ll give a crappy speech or, at the very least, an utterly forgettable speech. Better not to give a speech at all than to give one that serves no purpose.

7. You don’t care.

If you aren’t passionate about the topic you’re asked to address, either find a way to turn the topic to something you do care about or decline to speak about it. How can you expect an audience to care about what you say when you don’t care?

Giving a speech is both an honor and an obligation, an opportunity to say and do something worthwhile. Use it wisely. You’ll have a greater impact if you speak less frequently and if speak only when you are the right person with the right message for the right audience at the right time.

Short speeches have advantages over long speechesA short speech isn’t necessarily a good speech, but a short speech has several advantages over a long speech.

First, a short speech is more likely to hold your audience’s attention.

Because today’s audiences have the attention span of a gnat, the longer you speak — even if you’re presenting brilliant, exciting ideas — the greater your odds of losing their interest.

Say what you have to say as concisely as possible and stop talking.

Second, a short speech forces you to say what you mean…and nothing more.

The only way to keep your speech short is to develop a razor-sharp focus: develop one, and only one, idea. If you can’t sum up the central idea of your speech in under 15 words, you haven’t defined it precisely enough.

  • Cut out opening pleasantries like “I’m happy to be here today” or “I don’t have a lot of time so I’ll get right down to it.”
  • Eliminate anything — an idea, example, phrase, or word — that isn’t essential.
  • If you’re using PowerPoint, get rid of the cover slide and any slide that lacks a visual element (a chart, graph, picture, illustration).
  • Stop pussy-footing around. Don’t hem and haw. Don’t add conditional phrases and disclaimers. Take a stand. Show your colors. Boldly assert what you believe.

How long should a speech be? Just long enough to accomplish your goal and not so long that you lose your audience’s interest and goodwill.

I used to advise, “Never give a speech longer than 20 minutes.” Now I think 10 to 12 minutes is long enough. Five to six minutes might even be better.

“Every word [in a speech] that is unnecessary only pours over the side of a brimming mind.” — Cicero

The best way to maintain your audience’s attention and to drive home your main point is to keep your speech brief and focused.

Brief, as in the shorter the better.

Focused, as in concerned with one, and only one idea.

Eliminate unnecessary words, phrases, stories, facts, opinions.

What is unnecessary? Anything that does not help you attain your goal. Anything that does not

  • Clarify and substantiate your central idea
  • Establish your credibility and likability
  • Motivate your audience through their emotions and imaginations to take action
  • Make your speech more entertaining, engaging, memorable

It hurts, I know, to make cuts in anything you’re worked hard to create. But do it anyway.

Be ruthless about eliminating all this is inessential in your speech. Your audience will thank you for it.

Writing a speech
Should you write out a speech or shouldn’t you?

You should only write out a speech if you have something important to say and you want people to take it and you seriously.

If, on the other hand, you don’t have much to say,
if you don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other,
if you don’t have time to gather supporting evidence and to link it together in a clear and logical way,
if you have more important concerns to attend to (e.g. going to one more meeting or catching up on your email),
if you’re an accomplished speaker and you think you can wing it or speak from a list of talking points someone else developed,
if you’re so important that you don’t care what people think about what you say,
if you don’t have or won’t make the time that’s required to write out a speech (or to meet with a speechwriter),
then by all means don’t write out your speech.

Can you get by if you simply outline your speech and speak extemporaneously? Possibly, but only if you’re articulate, experienced, and uber-confident in front of an audience. And is that what you want to do, “get by”?

To create a speech that stirs people’s hearts and minds, lingers in their memories, and rouses them to action, you have to write it out.

We often talk about motivation and inspiration as if they’re they same thing. But they’re not.

What Is Motivation?

Motivation is about moving people to take action if not immediately, then within the very near future.

It heightens people’s emotions — especially their hope, desire, enthusiasm — urging them to act in a way that accomplishes a specific goal.

And it holds out the offer of a reward, a reason or a motivation for people to act.

Before a big game or during halftime, coaches motivate their teams to go out and do their best. What’s the goal? Win the game. What’s the reward? The pride of victory and of being a champion.

There’s a wonderful example of a military leader motivating his troops before battle from the movie Patton.

The speech as it’s delivered by George C. Scott is almost word for word the same speech that General Patton used to give the day before sending his troops to fight.

What does he want from his troops? To attack, never to stop, never to retreat, and most of all to kill the enemy. What reward does he offer? It’s better to kill them than to be killed by them.

So motivation involves moving people to take immediate action to accomplish a short-term goal. It does so by appealing to their emotions and by offering them some sort of reward or recompense.

By necessity, you have to keep motivating people over and over again. It doesn’t last, but as Zig Ziglar was fond of pointing out, neither does bathing, and that doesn’t stop you from bathing.

What is Inspiration?

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Leaders don't have to speak poorly.A speech is—potentially—one of a leader’s most powerful tools. It can promote an initiative, a proposal, a vision. Gain the public’s attention, respect, and cooperation. Change the way people think, feel, and act.

In reality most speeches by leaders suck. They are a waste of time, an imposition on an audience’s goodwill, a public display of ineptitude.

We suffer through a leader’s speech, pretending to pay attention, because, well, we have to. They’re the boss. Or the resident guru. Or the thought leader du jour.

They may project an “executive presence,” and tick off a number of talking points. But if they have anything original, or insightful, or incisive to say, they bury it beneath a flurry of jargon, generalities, and non sequiturs.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what they’re even talking about. Do they have a point? If so, who cares?

But some leaders get it right. Their speeches win our hearts and minds, linger in our memories, and stir us to action. The clarity of their vision thrills us. Their insight makes us wiser. Their examples, stories, and bigheartedness inspire us.

Why do other leaders—the majority—get it so wrong?

For two very good reasons: they don’t know how to construct a speech and, even if they did, they don’t have the time. And for one not-so-good reason: they’ve bought into the prevailing myth that delivery trumps content, that how you present yourself has more impact that what you say.

Neither charisma not platform pyrotechnics can substitute for a lack of substance. It’s your message—one big idea, clearly developed, supported by evidence and logic, brought to life in story and metaphor—that matters.

There is an alternative, a process that busy people can use to create speeches that bring about a change:

  1. Identify your core messages.
    Leaders keep returning to three basic messages: identity (who we are, how and why we were founded, our heroes and our values), mission (what we do and why we do it, what makes us different, our services and products), and vision (the challenges and opportunities ahead, where we’re going and how we’re getting there).
  2. Create four building blocks.
    For each of your core messages identity one big idea, a personal story, evidence, and a call to action as freestanding elements that you can combine in any number of ways.
  3. Construct your speeches using those blocks.
    Repeat, recycle, and repurpose those building blocks into a variety of speeches. (No it’s not cheating. It’s the best use of your time and energy.)

There’s really no excuse at all for giving a speech that sucks. Better not to speak at all. Creating a powerful speech—which isn’t the same thing as presenting a lame speech powerfully—is doable.

 

Make the best use of your speeches.A lot rides on a speech. The success of a project or an initiative. Winning a proposal. Getting the green light for a project. Changing people’s perceptions of a key issue. Your reputation. Perhaps even the future of your organization.

The problem is: it takes time to create a compelling speech. And who has time these days?

(By a compelling speech, I mean one that wins people’s hearts and minds, and stirs them to action.)

The answer is: put time and thought into creating a compelling speech and repeat it. Recycle it. Reuse it.

Three Reasons for Repeating a Speech

1. Repeating a Speech Saves Time and Money

Total up the cost of a speech — your time and other people’s time at the going rate — and you’ll realize how much giving a speech really costs.

If you only give a speech once, it’s a very expensive investment. But if you give it ten or twenty times (changing it slightly to suit the audience and occasion), well, that’s another story.

2. Repeating a Speech Makes It Better

Every great speaker knows this secret. A speech gets better the more often you give it. (That’s one reason why rehearsing a speech is so essential.)

The first time you give a speech may be good. But it’ll get better each time you give it. Say it again and again and again, and it’ll get better and better.

Repeating a speech improves its content. (You change it subtly, sometimes substantially, in response to your audience’s responses.) And it improves your delivery, making your more confident and more self-assured.

3. The Message is Worth Repeating

You can’t say the important things too often.

People don’t listen all that well to begin with, and they may miss what you’re saying the first time around. Or they may hear it and not really get it. Or they may understand what you’re saying and forget it.Or they may not think you mean it.

So say it again, Sam.

Sometimes, of course, you can’t or shouldn’t repeat the entire speech. But you can always recycle parts of it. You can tell a story or anecdote, cite a study or statistics, make an assertion that you polished and presented in one speech in an entirely (or almost entirely) different speech.

Try it. See how it works for you. Create a really great speech. And repeat it any time you get the chance. Once you perfect that speech, you can create another. (I recommend having three core speeches.) But always find a way to repeat, recycle, and reuse the speeches you create.

Maybe the most important thing to know about ending or concluding a speech (see “How to End a Speech”) is knowing when to end it.

Ending a SpeechI was once on a plane preparing to land in San Diego Airport, considered by some to be one of the country’s most dangerous due to its downtown location. It was late at night and foggy. Everyone just wanted to land and deplane.

We fastened our seat belts. We raised our tray tables and seats to their original, upright positions. And the plane made its descent.

At the last minute the plane pulled up, and the pilot announced that due to the fog we were unable to land. He circled the airport again, hoping that the fog would part enough for him to bring us in.

The pilot repeated the process — circling the airport, coming in for a landing, pulling up, and starting over again — two more times before landing.

I often have the same experience while listening to inexperienced speakers.

They’ve clearly said everything they needed to say. They’ve exhausted the subject as well as the audience. And they’ve given every indication that they’re ending. But they don’t stop. They keep talking. You can almost hear the audience groan.

Here are three iron-clad rules for knowing when to end a speech.

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