Inquisitive minds, creative thinkers, and the ability to constructively challenge a peer are valued in the business industry. However, it’s a very natural human trait to be paralyzingly terrified of public speaking, even when you are an expert on your content. What if those brilliant minds in the audience that I valued 10 minutes ago now ask me a question in front of everyone that I have no idea how to answer?
Shortly after registering for graduate school I snagged an awesome job as a community and professional educator with a national disease-related non-profit. I was confident in my own public speaking skills and ability to learn the material quickly. As the day of my first presentation crept closer into my world, the nerves in the pit of my stomach became anxious for the dreaded Q&A session following the program. Mastering the technology equipment, memorizing the speech, researching the subject matter, organizing the PowerPoint… all were easy, reliable tasks I could prepare myself for in advance. But this Type A personality was not excited about the unpredictable questions that would be thrown at me in the final minutes of my presentation. After all, these are the last moments attendees would have in our short but intimate time together. So I prepared as much as possible (see mention of Type A personality above), nailed a few and failed a few. But over the years to follow, I developed skills to handle these sessions with grace, confidence, and ease.
If you too are in a similar place, here are a few things to consider before grabbing hold of the microphone and crossing your fingers that the grade school tactic of imagining everyone in their underwear still holds true…
1. Master the content and statistics of your subject matter.
Know the material backwards and forwards so you are able to regurgitate it in different ways, for different audiences. Feeling like you own the material will give you confidence in sharing it with others. You come off as an expert when you are easily able to recite the information (or at least find it quickly in notes). When the audience trusts you they will also trust your response, which brings me to my next point…
2. Build a relationship with your audience throughout your presentation.
Arrive comfortable, confident, and easily approachable. By the time you open the floor for questions they will feel more comfortable with you and the answers you will provide.
3. Repeat the questions loud and clear.
This is Public Speaking 101, but so many skilled presenters fail this simple task. And audience members love it. It’s not just a compassionate support for the hard of hearing, but a welcomed skill when there are bad acoustics, a large audience, or multitasking attendees. Time and time again they will come up to you afterwards and compliment this simple skill (which can be semi-frustrating since you put way more time and energy into the rest of the program!). Probably the most consistent compliment on evaluations of my team were “Speaker was loud and clear!” Why bother even spending time on anything else if people can’t understand what you are saying? There are many strategies to consider when answering questions, but always make sure to repeat the question.
4. Research current trends and news related to your subject material.
This is like the breeding ground for community questions. If there was a recent news article or human interest story remotely close to the subject matter circulating on social media, it will most likely come up. It is also beneficial to attend programs of other speakers on related subject matter or have conversations with colleagues and create a Frequently Asked Questions list. If you can predict potential questions, this allows you to research and develop a well thought out answer.
5. Keep the content generalized.
I co-presented with lawyers on legal and financial issues related to aging. Every single presentation someone would raise their hand with a question about their specific situation and a personal story. If it is a simple response, or a question you think might be on the minds of many attendees, go for it. But the moment you get into details about one person’s situation that doesn’t relate to others, eyes will glaze over and you lose attention. Politely remind attendees that you want to keep the subject matter relevant to all, but you welcome them to approach you after the formal program or to contact you at your office for more specific scenarios.
6. Accept that you don’t need to know everything.
While it’s acceptable to not know everything, there is a finesse to delivering this information. Speaking feels safer than silence and presenters can ramble off on tangents when they don’t know an answer to the question. Have a practiced alternative to saying “I don’t know” to insert when someone asks a question you totally have no way to answer. A promise to find the answer and get back to them or a direction to where the information is located tend to go over well with audiences. If appropriate, bring along brochures or fact sheets with related information. You can invite people to pick them up prior to leaving if they want more information on something specific.
7. Creatively adjust stumpers or controversial topics to your knowledge base.
Answer the question you want to answer. This seems to contradict my earlier point, but it’s just a slight twist. I would frequently receive questions about far out, small sample size research studies that would be briefly mentioned in the news. I did not want to focus on these in my presentation, but would get one almost every time! Rather than arguing with challenging audience members about what their hairdresser felt about the situation, I chose to turn the questions into a relevant topic I wanted to discuss. “Thank you for mentioning that study you read about. To my knowledge, that specific study has not yet been proven valid, however, research is so important in the field. If this is a passion of yours, I really encourage you to visit our website to learn about the most up-to-date research and to even sign up to be a part of some of the trials!”
My final suggestion to improve your speaking skills is to think about the Q&A session as a part of your presentation, not just something tagged onto the end. Plan ahead, remain in control, and end on a note or tidbit you share that will remain in their heads as a final part of the presentation. Remember you are confident and educated on the topic. You got this.
Steffani is a health educator with a passion for learning and empowering the community. Her strong communication, administrative, and organizational skills have been an asset to her recent roles in the non-profit community. She is also a thorough researcher with a knack for creating captivating and educational presentations. She lives in the Cleveland Area with her husband, daughter, and pooch.