If your presentation is failing, starting a conversation with the audience by taking questions on the spot and asking questions might be the solution. It might be exactly what the audience needs, too.
But it’s natural to feel unready to halt a speech and start a back-and-forth. Alex Macintosh, a presentation and business storytelling coach, advises, “There are risks like anything, and it takes some finesse from the speaker to be sure they don't lose control of the room.”
If you’re skeptical or scared of going off-script, here are a few planning and practice tips:
Predict, Predict, PredictBrainstorm questions that you could ask throughout your presentation, even if you don’t think you’ll need them. Write down every answer you might get in response, and your possible response to those answers. Most skilled presenters try to predict what questions they’ll get in a traditional Q&A session. Use this similar strategy for audience conversations during the presentation itself.
Ask trusted colleagues what different questions and ideas they think the audience might have. Colleagues and managers might have previous experience with certain people, departments, companies, and industries.
Practice FormallyIf you’re alone, play two roles in your rehearsal. Ask your questions out loud, and answer with potential replies out loud, too. If needed, randomly flip over note cards with various answers you might get from the audience and respond accordingly.
If possible, work with a colleague, family member, or friend to add more spontaneity to your practice. Even if you give sample questions and answers to your buddy, they might use these talking points in an unexpected way or come up with new responses altogether.
Practice InformallyIf you can sit down with a buddy and have a conversation about your topic, you may be ready to have a stand-up conversation with your audience. Imagine you have lunch with your colleague and simply start talking. Ideas come and go in different directions. You enjoy your colleague’s interest and explaining your insights. Consider how you could take that same approach in your future formal sessions.
Use Q&A StructuresBuild Q&As into your practice sessions. In traditional post-presentation Q&A sessions, a back-and-forth structure helps the dialogue progress and keeps the audience following your ideas. A recommended structure is:
- Give an immediate reply when a question is asked, such as “Thank you,” or “That’s an important topic,” and use the person’s name if you know it.
- Restate the question, especially if you need to clarify what was asked for your own understanding or your audience’s.
- Answer the question.
- Finally, check whether your answer makes sense to the questioner, and if appropriate, ask if there are follow-up questions to keep the conversation going.
This formal structure isn’t always needed for small groups or simple questions, but it’s better to add this process into your rehearsal in case you need it.
Use Logical StructuresDeliver in-depth answers as logical steps. One of the most popular formulas is PREP:
- State your Point.
- Give a Reason.
- Share an Example.
- Restate your Point.
A similar structure called Past-Present-Future aligns with how people process information when discussing a long-term project. Build these into your rehearsals and exchanges.
Final ThoughtsStopping a presentation and turning it into a conversation can be scary for any speaker, even professionals. Unfamiliar audiences and potential unexpected responses often cause some anxiety. A facilitator friend gave me his take on people’s reluctance:
People may be intimidated because halting a presentation means not meeting expectations. The speaker was hired to present specific content or show specific slides. Think about a conference presenter hired to speak on a certain topic who decides to take their time in a different direction, whether their direction or the audience’s direction. If their focus is the audience’s understanding or needs, they might instead view their presentation as a debate. They can take unexpected audience ideas and feedback, and then decide the next reply. The slide deck will still be there if they want to return to it.
You’re the only person who can judge when and where to stop your one-way speech and start a two-way exchange. There are some scenarios where you should not try this strategy, like if you only know the content of your speech but nothing on the topic beyond your notes. But you likely know whether you’re ready to take on the challenge and use the advice in this blog post.
Putting one or two of these methods into your next speech or rehearsal will get you ready to use them when they matter. And again, scrapping your next point or slide and engaging your listeners is often better than going on and on when the audience simply isn’t connecting with your material.
Questions, suggestions, ideas, and links to video examples are welcome in the comments. Thanks to Jordan Vinikoor for his feedback on this piece.