Thursday, October 29, 2015

Venturing into the unknown

Recently I have been prepping clients for town hall-style meetings and live Q & A sessions--the type of event listed as "A conversation with the expert. . ." or "Talking to . . ." in conference programs. One of my clients said, "I want to control the conversation, even if I am being asked the questions." But he didn't want to pull that old politicians' trick of dodging the question and answering a different one instead. Right. That is never a good idea. It may seem, at the time, like an effective way to get your talking points out, but if someone is recording the exchange you will look like an idiot repeatedly, maybe even virally, ever after.

So how do you venture out into this uncharted territory? How can you ensure successful communication of your message when you are not in charge of the agenda, but responding to questions asked? It is preferable to discuss possible lines of inquiry with your moderator or interlocutor beforehand, but it's not always possible. Is there any way, short of practicing a Vulcan mind meld, to make sure your time in the spotlight offers you an opportunity to say what you need to say?

Yes. If you have done your preparation. Many people (thankfully not my clients) seem to think this is an unnecessary step. After all, you've been asked because you are the expert, so what's to prepare? You know your stuff, so you can just wing it, right? Wrong. Respect your audience. They want a little piece of your expertise, so put yourself in their shoes. Plan ahead. Plan to tell them what you find most exciting about your subject. Or discuss its timelier elements. If you can connect your subject to recent news events, so much the better. And be sure to have your best stories and examples polished and ready to be inserted into an answer early in the hour. It's not good to walk offstage and think "I really wanted to tell them about X--but it never came up." If you need to convey a particular point think of at least three ways you can weave it into answers for other likely questions.

And don't make the mistake of assuming every event of this nature will be your own personal love-fest. The moderator may think you are the best, but you could get push back from the audience. Be sure not to over-react. It is possible that the question you hear as a clear challenge to your authority may not have been meant that way at all. Since you are sitting in the speaker's "hot seat" your defensive ears could detect a menacing tone that simply isn't there. So prepare for the skeptics and always have an answer handy for the question you dread most. A real one, not a snarky aside.

Speakers often anticipate these sorts of town halls with apprehension, fearing an hour-long voyage into terra incognita. But if you take time beforehand, you can make sure you answer their questions while introducing some of your favorite talking points. And a good time will be had by all!

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