Here’s how to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as you finish a perfectly good presentation.
The situation we’re talking about is the important speech – maybe a product launch or conference plenary speech. The one with the large audience in the hotel ballroom, with the big sound, lights and vision. It’s part information and part theatrical performance, and the message they take away is shaped by a few critical points during the speech.
One of the most important factors is how it ends. End on a high note, and they leave thinking “now there’s an expert!’
You need to be in control of that ending. If it’s clear, energetic and draws all your points together, you’ll walk off stage to applause and admiration.
That is, unless you follow your snappy ending with a guaranteed barbiturate-strength room depressant: opening up the floor to Q&A.
It’s one of those presentation traditions that people can’t seem to resist, like ‘warming them up’ with a joke, another dangerous habit we’ll discuss another day.
When you finish on “So, are there any questions?”, one of two things will happen.
Most commonly, nobody has a question.
Not because your topic or performance was unworthy, but because few people want to be the first to speak up in a big room.
Silence. The air conditioning is suddenly quite audible. The conference MC steps up to the lectern to drum up some action.
“Wasn’t that great? Anybody have a question?”
Distant clinking of cutlery in the hotel kitchen three floors below. Shoes are stared at all over the room.
“Surely someone has a question. No? Well, huh huh, you must have covered the topic so incredibly well that there’s nothing left to cover. Please thank our guest speaker…”
By now, the energy from your speech has fizzled out, replaced by creepy uncomfortableness and a feeling that nobody loves you. You slink off the stage to desultory clapping, feeling like a player on a losing Grand Final team heading for the change rooms.
Attack of the Smuggers
Alternatively, someone does have a question. The question is: what sort of someone will be asking it?
In 99% of cases, it will be a special sort of person – let’s call them smuggers. Smuggers already know the answer to the question, and are asking purely to show everyone how clever they are. Whatever you’ve suggested, they’ve worked out some kind of obscure exception to your rule.
“You make a persuasive point in noting that oranges are orange. But could you also say that in the case of the blood orange, its reddish interior suggests that your rule doesn’t apply in all situations?”
Some years ago I watched Bill Gates walk the Q&A tightrope in a huge auditorium full of software developers. Each questioner had clearly spent months preparing their question in a dark basement, driven by the chance to go down in programmer history as “The Guy Who Stumped Bill Gates”. One by one they reeled off lengthy, obscure questions about codes and protocols, and demanded to know what Gates was planning to do about it. In a virtuoso performance, Gates answered the lot in forensic detail, even politely correcting a few of them on their technical knowledge. Unless you have a Gates-size brain, don’t try this at home, folks.
Maybe you won’t cop a smugging, but you’ll never know until they open their mouth, and that’s introducing a level of uncertainty that you don’t need.
What To Do
Tell them that there isn’t time for questions, but you’ll be around after the speech if anyone has any questions. This way you can cover individual, specific interests without taking the rest of the audience off-topic.
There are exceptions to this rule. It doesn’t apply to small meetings, like conference breakout sessions or boardroom new business pitches, where the tone is more interactive. And at AGM’s, where the right to Q&A is enshrined in law, it sometimes actually adds some energy and entertainment to the proceedings.
After all that, if you’re still keen on answering random questions, study the work of the current world champion of audience interaction, Ross Noble. Mind you, it’s easier for him. He can wander off on tangents about hamsters, while the rest of us have to stick to subjects like mutual fund returns, clinical trials or new brands of detergent with faster-acting enzymes.