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You've just finished your big presentation and take a quiet breath of relief.
Not so fast.
A critical part of your presentation is about to take place. And if you're not careful, it could spin out of control and undo all your hard work.
That's because it's now time for the question-and-answer period.
Many speakers believe that once they've gone through their PowerPoint, they're off the hook. They can answer a few simple questions and head for the exit.
But speakers can make many mistakes when starting their question-and-answer session, says Ben Decker, chairman and founder of Decker Communications.
The first: responding "That's a good question!" when an audience member makes a query.
"That's a bad habit," Decker says. "It's just a filler while they try to think of something to say, or they're trying to give a pat on the back to the person who asked it. But that can alienate the other audience members when you don't say the same thing to them when they ask a question."
Speakers should not be afraid to pause before answering a question to gather their thoughts, he says. At the same time, they always should think about how to link their answers to a main point made in the presentation.
"Question-and-answer sessions are as much of the communication experience as the presentation or speech," Decker says. "It could be even the most important part in order to get buy-in."
Another problem: A speaker may try to back away from a confrontational questioner or deny what is being said, says Nick Morgan, founder of Public Words.
Instead, a speaker should move toward the person and stand next to the questioner, facing the same direction. This strategy maintains your authority but calms down the questioner because "they really are looking for recognition," he says.
"Then, instead of rejecting what they're saying, reflect it. Say something like, 'What I hear you saying is that you're upset by my proposal because you feel I've left out the shepherds and the sheep. Is that fair?' " Morgan says.
This helps gain the person's agreement, he says.
"Then, you can say something like, 'I appreciate your point of view. In fact, you remind me of a story. ...' and then you gradually change the subject by taking it in a direction that you want to go in," Morgan says.
Decker agrees that you never should argue with someone in the audience. He recommends having a half dozen stories at the ready to use to evoke emotion and help connect you with the audience.
When a question is off topic or perhaps too elementary, a speaker needs to respond with something like, "Can we take that off line? That's really not on topic for our group time together, but I'd be happy to chat with you afterward," Morgan says.
The question-and-answer session should not be viewed as something to just get through at the end of a presentation, Decker says. It's an opportunity to hammer home important points and connect with your audience.
One key to that connection is making sure you look directly at the questioner when the query is being made then direct the answer to the entire audience to make them feel included, he says.
Morgan advises speakers not to panic if they don't immediately get a question from the audience.
"Be prepared to wait a full 6 seconds," he says. "That's how long it can take before someone responds. But it won't take any longer than that. If you don't wait, you send out a signal to your audience that you don't really want to hear from them, and they will abide by that signal."
Anita Bruzzese can be reached c/o Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107.