Build Tip

How to Think Quickly on Your Feet During a Q&A


As if preparing and delivering a presentation to your peers isn’t nerve-wracking enough, you also have to worry about the Q&A period at the end of your talk!

You’re worried about people asking not one but two questions, and having to decipher those questions that are really just comments. Then there is the dreaded question—the question you don’t know the answer to.

You don’t want to appear stupid in front of your audience!

Truth is that the Q&A period can leave many first-time public speakers feeling like they need to know everything before they give a talk!

But you don’t, and we’re going to debunk this myth and more in today’s Build Tip.

I’m joined by Lara Hogan, who is the VP of Engineering at Kickstarter and author of Demystifying Public Speaking. Together we’ll be sharing a number of strategies to help you get ready for any question you receive during your next Q&A session after a presentation or team meeting. You’ll also learn some techniques to calm your nerves, engage your audience, and keep them wanting more!

Listen to the episode on iTunes!

How to Think Quickly on Your Feet During a Q&A Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Whether you’re new to public speaking or you’ve been doing it for a very long time, there’s gonna come a point at the end of your talk, and right before that Q&A, where your nerves are gonna flare up.

You’re gonna be thinking, “What questions are people asking?” Or, “How do you respond to a question that you don’t know the answer to?”

Well in today’s Build Tip, I’m gonna cover answers to these questions and more. Welcome to Build, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker. And today I’m joined by Lara Hogan, who is the author of Demystifying Public Speaking, and a lover of donuts.

Lara Hogan: Absolutely.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So Lara, you and I have given a lot of technical talks through our careers, and gotten to this point where maybe we’re not as nervous giving the talk. But at the end, there’s that Q&A period. Right?

Lara Hogan: Right.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Where we can’t anticipate all the questions. Those wonderful two-parters. People who do comments instead of questions.

Lara Hogan: Absolutely.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Or you just don’t know what the answer’s gonna be.

Lara Hogan: Totally.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So, let’s kinda walk through each of these. Let’s start with the first where you just don’t have a sense of what the questions are gonna be.

Lara Hogan: Yeah.

How to prepare for a Q&A session

Poornima Vijayashanker: Do you have a technique that you use?

Lara Hogan: Absolutely. So I like to just in general have a feedback crew of three to five people. And hopefully they’re people who you know well enough to make sure they’re gonna give you good critical feedback.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lara Hogan: ‘Cause it’s not worth it to just get feedback from people who you’re not sure are gonna help you actually get better.

So at the end of your practice run, maybe with that feedback crew, maybe they’ve helped give you some feedback about your body language, about your words that you used, etc. Ask them to help you do a practice Q&A.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Lara Hogan: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s great.

Lara Hogan: I love to make sure I have a mix of people, maybe people who are new to the topic, maybe people who are really familiar with it, or know the audience really well.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Lara Hogan: ‘Cause they can help you level up your game, and get some practice to reduce those nerves.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lara Hogan: That when you’re finally on stage you’re like, “I’ve done this before.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure. And do you feel like the questions that they ask are usually indicative of what the audience is gonna ask?

Lara Hogan: I try to ask for two different kinds of questions. One’s just like a stereotypical, “If you were in the audience for real, what might you ask”?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lara Hogan: But if they’re your friends, they’re gonna be nice, normal questions.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Lara Hogan: I also like to add a version two, which is like, “Let’s get weird.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lara Hogan: Give me that statement that’s not actually a question. Or like totally intentionally misunderstand the point that I’m trying to make, and ask me that question.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Lara Hogan: That way I have some practice in knowing how to handle those really sticky moments.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So doing this in a practice session and dealing with peers, you’re probably gonna feel pretty good.

Lara Hogan: Yeah.

How to respond to a question that is really just a comment

Poornima Vijayashanker: But what do you do in that moment where you may get that comment that’s a question? How do you respond?

Lara Hogan: Totally. I think it depends on the situation. I want to remind everybody, your audience is rooting for you. Whenever you get that, “This is more of a statement than a question.” I promise it’s not just you feeling the weirdness of that, it’s the whole of the audience, too. And you’re still in a position of power. You still have control over the room.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Lara Hogan: And your whole goal is to teach people something new. And make sure that they are leveling them up in whatever the topic is that you’re talking about.

You have completely, a complete opportunity to be like, “Thanks for that. Here is how I would either reframe it, turn it into a better question, or answer the question, that you think you really wanted.” Provide the information to the audience, too.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Lara Hogan: Yeah.

What to do if you get asked a question from someone who is online

Poornima Vijayashanker: That’s good. Now I also know a lot of times there are questions that come up where the audience isn’t present, they might come up from audio, video, somebody might have written one in, Twitter, whatever. How do you facilitate those kind of questions?

Lara Hogan: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think—I hope—it helps to have a good moderator.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Uh-huh.

Lara Hogan: To make sure that someone can actually help you navigate especially as multiple different sources of information giving you those questions.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yep.

Lara Hogan: But by and large, I just try to scan them, and kind of see which ones are the most relevant to my topic.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lara Hogan: Or which ones are gonna help me give an answer that will actually level up the entire audience who’s listening in.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. I like what you said. So you’re gonna filtering, but in a way that’s gonna benefit the audience.

Lara Hogan: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Not just filtering for the sake of filtering.

Lara Hogan: Absolutely. Yeah.

What to do when you don’t know the answer to a question

Poornima Vijayashanker: So let’s talk about the last, the dreaded question, that you don’t know the answer to.

Lara Hogan: Oh, those are my favorite. Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lara Hogan: I found that just in general in my career, not just in conference settings, but as for standing up in front of my team, or my boss.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure, meetings.

Lara Hogan: Yeah. You have to be able to say, “I don’t know.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lara Hogan: And you can do it gracefully. Just saying, “I don’t know,” doesn’t mean that you’re bad at your job. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t do all the—no one human can possibly know all there is to know about the topic on which you’re speaking. So I like to practice also with that feedback crew saying, “I don’t know.” And in a really graceful and helpful way.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Lara Hogan: So maybe like “I don’t know. I’ll follow up later.” And like respond on Twitter when I finally do the research on their answer.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Lara Hogan: I might just be like, “I don’t know. That’s a great question. Come find me at the break and we can talk more about it.” And my absolute favorite one is to be like, “You know, I don’t know the answer to that question, but does anybody else in the audience know the answer to that question could you raise your hand? You should go talk to that person.”

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. That’s great.

Lara Hogan: Just totally punt on it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. No, that’s fair. Awesome. Well thank you so much, Lara, for joining us.

Lara Hogan: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. And thanks all of you for tuning in today. And special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing this episode.

If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please subscribe to our YouTube channel. And if you have friends out there who are nervous about Q&A, be sure to share this episode with them. Bye for now.

Lara Hogan: Thanks so much.

This episode of Build is brought to you by our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker.

Build is produced as a partnership between Femgineer and Pivotal Tracker. San Francisco video production by StartMotionMEDIA.