The Q&A is the most unwieldy fixture of public speaking, but also the most productive. Except when it’s not.

Audience feedback breeds engagement, but also chaos. Doing it well depends on your ability to minimize the free-for-all tendency of large group feedback.

If you want to neatly end a Q&A session, you need to start it right. So we should probably establish a few ground rules:

1. Enforce the one-at-a-time rule: When taking ideas or questions from the audience, you have to maintain the unspoken rule that no one other than you can speak without permission. Sometimes this applies to multiple people asking questions at the same time (or just blurting out questions without raising a hand and waiting for your go-ahead), but more often the issue is the side conversations that start as soon as people think your focus has shifted from everyone to someone specific.

2. Let them know what kinds of questions you’re willing to answer: One of the worst things about Q&As is what we call “one-guy” stories. They’re the situations and circumstances that are so unique and rare that, for the rest of the audience, it’s a complete waste of time to discuss them. Let everyone know what you’re willing to answer and be consistent once you get started. This helps keep things tight and organized.

3. Share an agenda: Questions are almost never-ending, especially in a large group where each question uncovers several other questions no one was thinking about. Let them know when they will have an opportunity to ask questions, how many questions you’ll be able to take, and if you have more presentation to give after taking questions on a certain topic, don’t be afraid to defer any wayward questions until the end since you might cover them during your talk.

These three steps make the amorphous structure of large group interactions more controlled and purposeful. When your Q&A is controlled and purposeful, you can easily take back the reins and bring it in for a landing whenever you need to. Then, all you need to do is be polite.

Which brings us to our final piece of advice on this subject. If you shut down the questions when there are still a lot of them in the room, you risk making people feel like you just don’t have time for them, or don’t really care about their thoughts. A great way to get around this is to just let people know that for the sake of time or the rest of your agenda, you have to press on for now but that you’ll stay after the presentation for about 15 minutes and answer any remaining questions. Give them your contact info so they can reach out to you later if necessary. Just knowing they haven’t lost their one shot at having a question answered will help them focus on whatever you have planned next. In most cases, they’ll never even bother to ask the question!

Question: Have you ever seen a Q&A gone wrong? What happened?

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