You’ve just completed a powerful presentation. You prepared well by analyzing the audience, creating a clear objective and crafting logical arguments supported by strong evidence. You designed a visually persuasive set of slides that simplified concepts and added an emotional dimension to your presentation.
Now comes the hard part—the question-and-answer session.
Remaining present in a tough spot
Even the most experienced presenters will tell you that Q & A is the toughest part of a presentation. The presenter—you—must yield the floor to audience members who may be skeptical, who don’t agree with you or who may be motivated to undermine your case or credibility.
The key to handling tough questions after a presentation is to retain control of both your emotional state and the dialogue, remain present and respond gracefully.
A tall order when you’re feeling threatened, challenged or put on the spot! But lessons from the ancient art of yoga can help. In particular, these four yoga practices can help you stay calm, centered and present.
Breath. Yoga is centered around the use of deep and rhythmic breathing. In yoga, breath is called prana, which means “life-giving energy.” Deep breathing grounds you and helps you stay fully present in the moment. Presenters faced with hostile questions often experience a rush of adrenaline and breathing becomes shallow, moving into the upper chest—great for running or fighting but not for responding to questions in a calm, rational manner.
Tip: The first thing a presenter should do when launching into the Q & A is get control of the breath. This requires a conscious effort to breathe deeply and slowly, taking in more oxygen and exhaling completely in a slow, deliberate manner. Breathe using the diaphragm—as the breath goes in, let the stomach move out to accommodate it. Focusing on the breath will help you regain a sense of calm and control. The ability to control the breath takes practice but it is a great tool to help you prepare for difficult Q & A.
Focus. It’s easy to lose focus when faced with tough questions. Our minds are quick to distract us with self-doubt: Will I give the right answer? What will they think of me? However, what we need to do is stay focused on the nature and scope of the question and the person asking the question. Moving your focus from the annoying inner voice worried about what everyone thinks to active listening allows you to stay present and formulate the right response.
In yoga, we use a practice called drishti to develop concentrated attention. It involves a focused gaze, usually on something stationary, but it can also employ a focus on the breath. The idea is, when the gaze or attention is fixed on a single point, the mind is less likely to be distracted by other stimuli, internal or external.
Tip: Staying focused with an inner calm while being fully present for the audience is a very difficult skill to master. It may help to picture yourself standing on stage with a bright spotlight shining straight down on you. You are enclosed by the light, keeping you in intense focus, but you are still seen clearly by the audience.
Balance. Yoga practice includes a variety of balancing poses. The postures help build physical strength but more important, they build inner calm and steadiness—two of the most valuable attributes of successful presenters, especially during Q & A sessions. It’s easy to get knocked off course by direct and challenging questions; presenters need poise.
Tip: Poise is balance is under fire. It requires being grounded and having a firm foundation. Whether it’s a standing balance or an arm balance, yogis begin with a solid foundation and work to stay aligned. In the same way, presenters need to stay grounded in their point of view (their “core”), using their thesis and supporting arguments to stay aligned in their responses. If you stray too far from what you’ve presented, you risk being knocked off balance and providing incoherent or confusing responses not grounded in facts or logic.
Flexibility. Yoga practitioners work to develop the ability to move in any direction with a full range of motion through a series of postures. Balanced with strength, flexibility helps us develop an agility that allows the body to move gracefully.
Tip: Presenters must move with flexibility through a Q & A session, able to respond to a variety of questions or objections. You can improve your “response flexibility” by combining a deep knowledge of subject matter with the ability to think quickly. Start by preparing a set of questions that you think audience members may ask. As you develop responses, condense each one to a key word or phrase that you can use as the catalyst for your full response. Then, practice moving fluidly from question to question with your key word or phrase as the starting point for your response.
Heading off fight or flight
By their nature, Q & A sessions produce anxiety. Presenters can feel out of control and a natural response is fight or flight. When that instinct kicks in, two unfortunate outcomes are possible: coming off as defensive or offering incoherent responses.
The best presenters know how to handle the toughest questions with poise and professional presence. As you prepare for your Q & A session, keep in mind the yoga practices of breath, focus, balance and flexibility. They will provide a firm foundation on which to build your speaking skill.