How to Nail the Q&A

There are few things that make people more nervous than giving a prepared speech in public. 

But one thing that certainly does?

Taking questions from the audience after. 

Boy howdy, does a Q&A send our lizard brains into fight or flight!


Because we are now outside the land of rehearsed presentations, and into the world of...


(Fortunately for you, dear reader, I'm OBSESSED with improv.)

Q&As can be scary because we feel like there's no way to practice them.

But this simply isn't true. 

Professional improvisers don't rehearse the shows they perform on stage, but they practice the skills constantly. 

And the seemingly simple skill that the practice the most?


Let's get into it, shall we? 

The #1 mistake I see speakers make during Q&A is:

Starting their answer before they've fully processed the question

We've all seen it. 

A politician is asked a pointed question about healthcare premiums, and that politician responds with a very rehearsed story about immigration. 

Audiences hate this. 


Because we're left with two possible conclusions:

  1. The speaker heard the question and actively CHOSE not to respond to it.
  2. The speaker didn't even hear what they were being asked. They were just reciting talking points. 

With newbie speakers, conclusion #2 is usually correct. 

Often when a new speaker is nervous, they start trying to formulate the answer to the question while the question is still being asked

This impulse is understandable, but lethal.

Here's how the best speakers handle getting asked an audience question:

STEP 1: WHILE the question is being asked...

They tap into their mindfulness training. 

What does this look like?

Quite simply: they are breathing and they are staying in the moment

I know that sounds super basic, but watch for this the next time you see a newbie speaker on stage. 

90% hold their breath while the question is being asked.

And folks, we are not good at processing information when we aren't breathing.

Do you know what the old-timey name for an inhale is? Inspiration.

Block your breath, you block your inspired response. 

The best speakers are able to breath and stay with the person asking the question, instead of mentally leaping ahead to their response. 

STEP 2: Before they respond...

They process the question. 

After the audience member has completed their question, the speaker takes a full inhale and exhale and assesses:

Did I understand the question? 

If the answer is "yes," they move on to their response. (Hooray!) 

If the answer is "no," they ask for clarification.

When asking for clarification, you'll notice the best speakers tend to repeat back the audience member's exact words. 

"Now when you say, 'xyx,' what exactly are you referring to?"

This is strategic.

Repeating back part of the question gives the speaker a little more time to process what they've just heard AND signals to the audience member that they were, in fact, listening.

STEP 3: They respond...

With honesty. 

And here's the kicker...

This sometime involves saying the phrase:

"I don't know."

You are not Google. You may not know the answer to every question you are asked! 

We sometimes worry that the audience will no longer trust us as experts if we admit we don't know something. 

In fact, the opposite is true. 

We trust leaders who are honest about what they do and do not know.

We trust people who say:  

  1. "I don't know the answer to that, but I can find out and report back!"
  2. "We can't answer that with certainty yet, but the research suggests..."
  3. "Great question! I don't know the answer myself, but maybe [blank] could answer that for us."

Don't try to BS a response. The audience can smell that a mile away.

You've proven your expertise with your talk, and you've demonstrated your respect for the audience by staying present with them through all three steps. 

Trust them to trust you.  

Follow these steps, and before long, the Q&A will be your favorite part of your talk!

Believe me, these simple adjustments will allow you to connect with your audience in ways you never even imagined.

Speaking of connecting...

Need some more hands-on guidance around your public speaking goals?

Let’s chat!

As a thank you for sticking with me through this stressful subject, I’d like to invite you to schedule your Complimentary Speak Masterfully Strategy Session!

This is a 30-min phone call where we'll get super clear on 3 things:

1. What are your goals as a public speaker?

What's your big why?

  • Do you want to step into more of a leadership role at work?
  • Do you want to start speaking on stages at conferences?
  • Are you just hoping to give a speech at your sister's wedding without sweating through your clothes?

Let's pinpoint exactly what that "why" is.

2. What is your biggest stumbling block when it comes to public speaking?

A few common challenges clients come to me with:

  • Performance Anxiety (How do I get my nerves under control?)
  • Pacing (How can I keep from speeding up and tripping over words?)
  • “Ums” and “Likes” (How can I stop using filler words?)
  • Lack of “Stage Presence” (What is it, and how do I get some?)
  • Lack of a System (Where do I start? What are the steps for preparing and practicing a talk?)

Now obviously we won’t be able to cover all of those in 30 minutes, but we can definitely make a dent!

3. What tangible steps can you take right now to get you past that stumbling block so you can achieve your goal?

Because, who doesn’t love a plan?!

And I’m a big believer in starting with the 20% of effort that’s going to yield 80% of results.

<<Schedule your strategy session here!>>

And look, I know a phone conversation may sound stressful, but I promise I'm easy to talk to ;)

(That's quite literally my job.)

Hope to talk soon!

Photograph of Sara Glancy on stairs
Headshot by Jessica Osber.

Sara Glancy is an NYC-based actor and public speaking coach and the founder of Speak Masterfully, a service that helps professionals take the stage with less fear and more fun! 

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