After an informative discussion, the next step is generally a group discussion with the audience, where audience members can share any unanswered questions that they may have, express their own opinions on the subject and discuss the concepts raised in the presentation with the rest of the group. As a question and answer session can quickly spin out of control, particularly where larger events are concerned, it is important that the presenter assumes a leadership role from the outset. This not only means answering questions, but also acting as a moderator. As good speakers are not automatically good at leading group discussions, it sometimes requires a little practice to step up to the challenge of public speaking, even after the presentation has finished, but following these five tips should make every discussion a success.
The right preparation
The presentation itself is often uppermost in the speaker’s mind, and therefore the follow-on discussion is often not thought through fully, but preparation is actually vital at this stage of an event. Naturally, there is no way of knowing which questions the audience will ask, nor can anyone know whether the audience will be especially talkative or reserved. However, for precisely that reason, speakers should put themselves in their audience’s shoes and consider which questions are likely to arise. It’s also important to consider how the question and answer session will be set up. Should the participants come onto the stage, or should they remain seated? How many microphones should there be? How much speaking time will each person be allowed? How long should the group discussion go on for? Speakers who show their audience from the beginning that they are taking a structured approach to the discussion session, and keeping everything under control, radiate self-confidence and professionalism.
The right trigger question
“Does anyone have any questions?” This approach rarely works as a starter question. Nothing is more stressful than trying to lead a discussion that is struggling to get off the ground because no one has the confidence to make the first move. That’s why it’s important that the speaker concludes his or her presentation by asking a pertinent question of the audience to start the ball rolling. This question should be specific, yet challenging, so that the barriers to joining the discussion are as low as possible. Questions that are too open often cause confusion, or there is no one in the audience who has the confidence to put forward his or her own opinion. At the beginning of a discussion, it is always helpful to appeal to the audience’s emotions, as most people react much more strongly to emotional triggers than appeals to their reason. Some emotions engender much stronger reactions that do not require explicit justification. Engaging with these emotions greatly increases the chances of finding someone in the audience who wants to participate, compared to an attempt to start a debate around a neutral, reasonable topic of discussion.
The right leadership
It is generally the case that the moderator of a group discussion or question-and-answer session is the same person who gave the presentation immediately beforehand. This means that it’s important for presenters to be conscious of the responsibility that comes with their role. If no single person assumes responsibility for managing the discussion, discourse can quickly break down into chaos, and therefore moderators need to know when to impose their authority, keep the core topic in focus and avoid principled debates. This scenario shows another major benefit of Beamium: with the web-based service Beamium, audience members can use their own smartphone or tablet to browse through slides to review specific concepts from the presentation after the last slide has been presented. This allows elements of the presentation that are no longer visible, or that audience members may not recall perfectly, to still be used to contribute to the discussion. If the discussion still falters despite everything, the moderator can prompt more discussion by referring back to the presentation. By asking questions and raising objections in an intelligent fashion, skilled moderators can shape the audience’s views and steer them toward a desired outcome. The speaker’s final task is to give structure to the contributions of the various participants and, at the end, to synthesize them into a single, clear overview. This challenging task requires the highest levels of concentration throughout, and shows how important it is to listen attentively at all times.
The right time management
Many speakers find it particularly difficult to stick to time limits when giving a presentation, and it’s even tougher in the subsequent discussion session. All presenters should consider in advance how much time to allocate for a question and answer session or a group discussion. This approach to time management should be communicated to the audience beforehand in order to set the audience’s expectations. During the discussion, the moderator must bear in mind that the discussion should be of interest to the entire audience, including those who aren’t participating in the discussion directly. If the topic of discussion becomes either too broad or too narrow, or just generally long-winded, a large part of the audience may feel excluded and their attention may wander. This can lead to unpleasant ambient noise that eventually overwhelms the discourse and ends it on a low note. Therefore, the moderator should make it clear to the audience that each participant can only speak for a limited time, and ensure that this is adhered to.
The right approach to conflict
Every discussion has the potential to generate conflict as differing opinions meet and sometimes clash. It is absolutely fundamental that the leader of the discussion remain calm and polite at all times. Even when the audience harshly criticizes or attacks the line of argument in the presentation, it is important to avoid reacting emotionally or giving in to provocation. Unpleasant situations should be circumvented as charmingly as possible, with a smile on your face. By showing understanding for your opponent while sticking to your guns, you will come across as confident and professional, and this will also affect the way your presentation is perceived. Particularly serious conflicts that threaten to escalate must in no circumstances be allowed to play out in front of a wider audience. If this happens, it makes sense to invite the people who are involved in the conflict to a follow-up discussion in the company of a neutral moderator. After all, the best approach is to start afresh before the discussion starts going round in circles.
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