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How To Prepare For Rapid-Fire Q&A With Any Audience

by Jill Foster on January 11, 2011

…rich in examples and relevance with even insight from Dr. Suess(!)

Thus describes what it’s been like reading Karen Friedman‘s new book Shut Up and Say Something (Praeger). For full disclosure, her team invited Women Grow Business to review her book and offered a complimentary copy for this purpose.

It continues to be a resourceful read, focusing on diverse business communication strategies like:

  • Public speaking “no-no’s” – with a favorite tip as:
    No matter how strong your expertise, avoid winging it before a presentation.
  • Trust with stakeholders and the power of perception – with a favorite tip as:
    Communicate problems quickly. Friedman cites Toyota’s dramatic recall of faulty vehicles last year and the media’s perception the company potentially knew of the malfunction for two years before deciding a recall had merit.

-Which leads into one of my favorite sections of the book: handling Q&A from audiences and the press.

Image Question Mark by Segozyme, Creative Commons

Frankly, there have been instances in watching speakers engage audiences during Q&A where my first perception would sometimes be: “C’mon! That’s a nutty question that’s a waste of time.” But dismissing questions, especially as the person fielding them in this type of dynamic, isn’t the name of the game.

What is the name of the game, according to Friedman:

Perceiving all questions during question/answer sessions as relevant. And after reading her stories and anecdote-heavy chapter on the topic, she converted me to the same belief.

These insights below stood out on how to prepare as a public speaker or company representative leading a Q&A session:

#1. View each question as a chance to expand conversation with key audiences.

Consider each question as a viable opportunity to disclose information and create benefit to relevant publics. Even when questions inspire a bit of dread in you or the company spokesperson handling the Q&A, avoid the limited “yes” or “no” responses. Friedman offers dialogue examples throughout this chapter.

#2. Know key messages and how to speak from the heart, especially unexpected questions.

Should an immediate answer not come to mind, use that moment to simply lead into the core message you most wish to impart. But bottom line, at least know – emphatically – what that core message is.

A stellar example:

Friedman underscores the value of being absolutely clear on key messages and being prepared to articulate them in the face of surprise lines of questioning. She cited the famous (…infamous) interview between U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy and CBS correspondent Roger Mudd. In the late 1970s, Mudd posed an unanticipated yet basic question to the senator: “Why do you want to be president?”

The senator – normally a swift, precise communicator – replied with legendary abstraction and offered an unlyrical ramble. That interview occurred a few days before Senator Kennedy planned to officially announce his bid for the presidency against President Jimmy Carter.

Watch the critical interview and wealth of pundit commentary on it.

Clarity is king.

#3. Prepare lists of questions beforehand and develop answers to shape clarity of mind.

What stood out here are the types of lists she suggested (the book includes hearty examples too): prepare and be able to answer a list of questions the audience will most likely ask — the easy schmeezy ones. Yet expand preparation to include a second list that reflects emotionally-centric questions related to your audience’s interest.

Friedman’s communications experience comes across as well informed and pretty resourceful. She includes steady examples throughout the book especially for the C-suite. I’d be interested in her offering more examples from a small business vantage point yet I’m still progressing through the book; so possibly that craving will be satiated.

More from Women Grow Business:

Cited by ForbesWoman as one of 30 women entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter, Jill Foster is principal of Live Your Talk and founding editor of Women Grow Business.  Believing strong communities come from strong conversations (and thus public speaking skill), she specializes in speech coaching for women in technology.  A social tech enthusiast, she co-founded DC Media Makers – a peer learning community that teaches digital technology. Jill won the Apps for Democracy Social Citizen Award for a co-produced project on how technology could help Washington, DC neighborhoods.  During the 2008 presidential election, she fulfilled a lifelong dream by serving as a “Big Tent” credentialed blogger for the Democratic National Convention.

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