You survived your talk. Congratulations! Every now and then a head of state gets assassinated during their speech, so pat yourself on your back: you’re already better off than those unfortunate souls.
Don’t crack that bottle of tequila open yet, though. If you’re at a conference, or definitely if you’re giving a presentation to coworkers, you might have to face your gravest challenge yet: the question and answer section.
Personally, I love Q&A. I’d rather give five minute talks and hour long Q&A sessions, but then again I also don’t mind eating the cheese straight out of the pouch in the Velveeta Mac and Cheese box, so your mileage may vary. Q&A can be a lot of fun because you’re directly talking about things people care about, and it helps you gauge what people are interested in in case you’re giving this talk again later on.
There’s always some shit you have to deal with, though:
Dealing with not understanding a question
New speakers freak out about Q&A for a number of odd reasons, but the main thing you’ll end up worrying about? Not understanding what the hell you’re being asked.
You’re up in front of everyone. Sometimes you’re in the spotlight, which makes it hard to see who’s asking the question. Sometimes the person asking the question doesn’t have a microphone. Sometimes the person asking the question has a heavy accent or isn’t a native speaker. Sometimes you’re just stressed out from your talk that your fried brain won’t have the faintest idea of what the questioner is talking about.
With all of these things the same rules always apply. They all sound stupid, now, while you’re reading this, but you’ll be amazed about what you’ll forget when you’re on-stage after a talk. The rules:
Ask them to repeat the question. The easiest and simplest thing. Usually if you can’t hear the question, it’s almost certain the audience can’t, either (which is a good reason to repeat the question, too). Repeating the question doesn’t make you look like a douche: it makes you look like someone who cares enough to get it right or, heaven forbid, someone who just didn’t catch the question the first time around.
Have them ask you privately afterwards. Still don’t have the foggiest idea of what’s going on? Just ask them to chat with you after. It lets you talk to them in more detail, and it’s perfectly fine not to bother the rest of the audience with more back-and-forth.
Dealing with fucking up
Even after all the prep in the world, sometimes you fuck up. You say something you didn’t intend, or you’re just wrong about something. There’s always going to be someone in the audience who will try to correct you.
If what they’re saying sounds right, or you’re not sure what’s true and what’s false anymore, just cop up to it. “Whoa, I didn’t know that” is a big concession, and it makes you look like someone open to new ideas. It’s not bad to be a flip flopper. Sometimes you’re just going to be wrong.
Dealing with questions that aren’t questions
This almost always happens at least once at every conference I’ve been at. You know the type: the dude in the back who’s already 75 seconds into his “question” and yet you still haven’t heard anything remotely close to what could be considered a question in fact you’re pretty sure this smug jerkhole doesn’t have a question and you mostly just want to punch him in the ever-flapping mouth.
Snap out of it. You have a microphone. Use it. Do you have an actual question?, when said properly, is probably the funniest thing for the rest of the audience to hear ever. You don’t have to be a jerk about it: just ask them if they’re going to get to the point. If you’re irritated, I guarantee the rest of the audience is a heartbeat away from mob justice themselves.
Just be nice and you’re going to be fine.
Dealing with assholes
You’re really not going to run into assholes very often. People worry about the rogue troll in the audience, but typically human beings are pretty timid, respectful creatures.
Every now and then, though, someone may challenge what you said in a rude manner. Again, remember that you have the mic, and more importantly, you are literally in a position of power: you’re up on stage, under the lights, in front of the room, whatever. Stay classy and you’re going to win the argument. You return the snideness back at them and you’ve lost the battle of public opinion.
When in doubt, defuse, concede some ground as a good-natured way of letting the jerk feel like they’ve won something, and move on to the next question. In a conference, organizers will likely help you with this, as they’ll want to avoid confrontation too.
You’re not trying to win over the asshole; who wants another asshole, anyway? You’re fighting to make everyone else in the room think to themselves “god I don’t even care about this anymore, fuck this weirdo HE STILL HASN’T EVEN ASKED A QUESTION YET”.
Don’t pick a battle with someone who buys ink by the barrel, and don’t pick a battle with someone who’s up on stage and who has been talking for awhile. You have all the power, and you’ll win anyway.