Question mark made of puzzle piecesStudents instinctively duck the question-and-answer phase of a speech altogether, or else place it as an afterthought after the speech is over. Professionals sometimes wind up a great speech with a querulous, “Are there any questions?” John Zimmer has wisely advised that you leave out a couple of common closing slides, one of which is tied to the Q&A. Comments at the end of that article reminded me of my own practice, and the one I advise students to follow: never let the Q&A be the last thing your audience hears. Come back with a planned conclusion after the Q&A.

Two bad things can happen if you try to end with Q&A.

  1. They have no questions. Uncomfortable silence follows. Crickets chirp. The speaker tries to console himself (male pronoun used since “himself” refers to me in an earlier incarnation) that he must have covered all the bases, while actually believing he made so little impact as to leave the audience with no curiosity about the topic. Audience members will probably assume the lack of interest. In other words, a lack of questions can just suck all the energy out of what otherwise might have been a dynamic speech.Plus, it can leave you running short of audience expectations regarding the length of the speech. Although it has been said that no speaker has ever gotten in trouble for going undertime, that isn’t completely true. Audiences that have paid for an hour mini-seminar can feel cheated if they only get 40 minutes.
  2. Someone has a combative question. Rather than ending on the strong note in the conclusion, the speaker winds up defending his contentions. Addressing objections is essential–but any sales professional will tell you that you don’t end there.

Instead, plan a Q&A after your last main body point, but before your conclusion. Deal with whatever questions come up, or the lack thereof with a plan B, a planted question, or introducing your own questions. Then end with your call to action.

Sometimes speech texts will say the parts of the speech with the most impact are the introduction and the conclusion. If you structure it properly, that is true. The most accurate way to put it, though, is that the greatest impact comes from the first thing the audience hears from you and the last thing. Make sure the last thing they hear is something you want them to remember.

Update: There’s a third bad thing that can happen–you get good questions, that you could have used in your conclusion if you had known about them! Answer: if you get good questions, use them by referring to them in the strong conclusion you craft.

Dr. Michelle Mazur has a good article along similar lines at How to Ruin a Presentation in the Last 30 Seconds. Check it out!

Creative Commons License photo credit: Question mark, by Horia Varlan

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