Imagine being at a conference or meetup giving a talk. You completely ace it (I believe you will, even if you don’t, you badass!) but then you feel anxiety setting in. You can feel it coming for you, slowly, surely: the end of your talk. Which means… it’s time for Q&A: Questions and (hopefully) your Answers.
Q&A is the most dreaded part of a presentation for some while being indispensable for others. Let’s talk about that.
It’s not 1 vs N
Let’s discuss the “fear” part of the Q&A first because let’s not deny it, it can be quite daunting.
Sometimes it makes you feel like you are in the middle of a technical interview. Instead of one interviewer, you have … an audience. Maybe 10 people, maybe 50, maybe way more than that. The chances are, there is someone in the audience who knows way more about the topic than you do. Maybe the person who wrote THE book on Java is in your audience while you are giving a Java talk. Now that is scary.
And yet, all of that does not matter. Because it is not a technical interview. Your Q&A is not a place where people will ask you questions to bring you down a notch. Here is the truth about Q&A (and your entire talk in general):
Your audience wants you to succeed.
Q&A is not a “1 vs All” proposition, it’s a collaborative moment. That person who knows more about the topic than you do… no matter how scary their presence may seem to you at first, they might be the ones to jump in and help you answer those questions. Just be sure to thank them for their help afterwards.
The biggest mistake in Q&A
It is normal to not know the answer to every question. Don’t let that distract you. Don’t let it get to you! You are still the presenter! You know enough about that topic to be there!
There is only one thing you should never do:
Never pretend to know the answer when you don’t.
I see people struggling with this. Some get so caught up in the idea that they are supposed to be “ultimate master experts” they have trouble handling the perceived emberrasment of not knowing the answer to a question. So they start inventing answers, to keep up appearances. Problem is: People know. Your audience can sense that you are making stuff up from a mile away. Especially people who have more knowledge on the topic than you do.
There is only one thing you can answer in this situation:
“I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that question…"
Yes, people expect you to be able to answer basic questions but if you have prepared a talk on something, you will be able to answer those questions. So it’s actually pretty straightforward: either you know, or you admit you don’t know. There is no shame in any of those two outcomes.
Q&A beyond your talk
Having been to quite some conferences now, I have noticed that the Q&A is often my favorite part. It gives me the opportunity to ask questions to people who know a lot more about the topic than I do. Even if I have no questions myself, I will often just sit there and listen to the questions other people come up with. Don’t forget: You have a room filled with people, each with a slightly different background and perspective. You’ll notice that often one of them ask a question that will make you think: “Oh… never even considered that."
Despite the Q&A being a great moment of opportunity and collaboration, most speakers only share 2 things: Code and Slides. While you should be grateful they are willing to share their hard work, the Q&A part of the talk often gets lost to history. This can be extra frustrating for members of the audience who asked a question that was left unanswered.
When I started doing talks, I decided I wanted to do it differently. That is why, for every talk I give, I create a page containing, Slides, Code and the Q&A. See this example. This allows me to take whatever great interactions I had during the talk and bring it, at least partially, online for everyone to see. I can’t recommend this enough! It has so many great side effects.
First of all, it enables you to say:
“I’m sorry, I don’t know the answer to that question but I will figure it out for you!”.
By posting the Q&A online, you’re effectively extending it beyond your timeslot. This gives you the time to figure out answers to the questions you couldn’t answer during the talk. That way, you are still helping your audience, which is what this is all about!
Secondly it also greatly benefits yourself! By keeping track of all the questions people have asked and answering them, you are effectively creating an amazing resource of information. Questions that are asked frequently are a nice indicator that your presentation is missing some content. Knowing what is missing, you can add that information to your slides to make your talk even more awesome!
After giving a talk a couple of times, I notice I often open my own website and go to a Q&A page of a previous talk and I use that content to answer questions. That’s not bad presenting, that’s giving your audience the content they are looking for.
This entire post originated because of a tweet by Angie Jones (a fellow badass!). In the tweet, she talks about being unable to answer some questions and how she handled it by researching the questions and writing a blog post about the answers.
It made me realize that I had been doing exactly the same thing for a while but never talked about it, assuming more people were already doing it anyway. Turns out I was wrong. I should have been advocating for sharing Q&A’s online and following up on unanswered questions a bit more.
With that at least partially corrected now by posting this, I hope to see more content out there. Not because a presenter succeeded in answering questions but because they failed and handled it with grace.