Lot of people ask me about taking questions when they speak. Do they have to? Are they supposed to? What if nobody asks one? What if they don’t know the answer?

So … here are some A’s about Q-and-A.

No, you don’t have to take questions from the audience. Some very good speakers never allow audience engagement. And I’ve been told … people came to hear you. They didn’t come to hear that guy in the third row spouting off. So it’s entirely legit to do your talk, enjoy the applause and leave the stage without ever taking a question.

In some settings, it is expected that speakers will take questions. Meeting planners often set it up that way: a certain amount of time for the talk, with time at the end for Q-and-A. So if you actually want to engage with the audience, you can do it then.

I love interaction and it’s one of my Special Speaker Strengths (everybody has some of those, by the way). I often encourage listeners to ask questions as they come up rather than waiting for the end, and that works well for me. It wouldn’t be the best strategy for every speaker. It’s easy to lose control when you have people piping up during your talk. So most of us are better off to contain questions in one set time at the end.

BUT (she said emphatically) do not finish your talk completely and then say, “Does anybody have any questions?”

Three things can happen if you do. Maybe someone asks a great question, you answer it, and you finish your talk on a high note.

OR someone asks a lame question, one that’s way off-topic, or even a hostile question. You do your best with it and limp to a close sounding less than powerful.

OR nobody asks a question at all. And you stammer, “Well, okay then, I guess, uh, that’s it …” or something like that. You’ve heard speakers do that dozens of times, I’m sure – you know how un-polished it sounds.

Here’s a better plan. Get almost to the end of your talk. Summarize your main points (you never know what people might have missed as they mentally drifted in and out – and they do drift).

Now, invite questions. And if you genuinely want your audience to engage with you, say something like, “What questions do you have for me?” or “What questions can I answer for you?” or “What else would you like to know as we wrap it up?”

When a speaker says, “Does anybody have any questions?” a perfectly reasonable answer is – No. But when you ask what questions they have, it puts subtle pressure on them to come up with a question. They’re more likely to play.

Answer as many questions as you want to or have time for. If you don’t know an answer, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” “I’m not sure about that.” “I don’t have any research on that.” Any of those answers are better than trying to fake it. You’re human – you don’t have to know everything. It helps if you can do your not-knowing with total confidence and without apology.

So you’re on a roll with the Q-and-A. Now stop before the dialogue just peters out. When there’s still a hand or two raised, answer your last question and say, “We’re going to have to end here.” Or something similar.

111214-feature2(If you like, you can offer to talk with people individually after the meeting ends – that’s up to you. Those one-on-ones can be a good opportunity to talk about next steps if you’re speaking to attract clients. If someone meets you at the back of the room to talk, that’s a pretty good sign they’re interested in you and what you have to offer.)

Then, wrap up your talk. Restate your main point, give your listeners an action step to do, maybe tell a quick story that reinforces what you’ve talked about and sends them away on a high note. This is where you tie a big red bow around your talk and hand it over to your audience.

Your big finish will be a lot smoother with the Q-and-A handled before your finale.