As I’ve begun presenting my talk to multiple groups of people, I’ve found the Q&A sessions particularly interesting. I think that 10 years ago, before my improv training and before my experience with Microsoft’s old-school Precision Questioning tactics, such discussions would have been a nightmare for me. It’s been very enlightening to see what perspective time brings.

Some folks have been extremely gracious – making sure to start out with compliments or thanks in an effort to convey their appreciation for the messages in the talk. Which is AWESOME. I often want to give them a hug before answering, which would sadly just make things awkward. But others go straight for the jugular, asking difficult questions or pointing out flaws or exclusions. I found myself surprisingly defending these latter folks when a particularly gracious attendee was telling me how they wished the first few questioners had expressed gratitude for my talk.

I’ve realized that in many ways, the difficult questions are not intended to be antagonistic – rather, there’s an entire set of personalities that enjoy being challenged and often assume others will feel the same way. (And in many ways I do, especially since I’m trying to evolve my message moving forward.) If you look at the sometimes-aggressively-worded questions as opportunities and invitations for serious discussion, and not territorial posturing, it makes it much easier to move forward.

There’s also another perspective on it – at some point in the future I’ll cover this story in more detail, but the late Randy Pausch, who delivered the now-famous “Last Lecture”, was my professor, boss, and mentor. I was in the auditorium for that talk, and his story about his football coach, who rode him harshly with critique, still resonates. When Randy approached his coach, the coach explained, essentially, that such critique meant that the coach still had faith in his abilities – it’s when the critique stops that one should be worried. In that way, my greatest fear would be to deliver a talk and encounter bored or blank stares afterwards. Challenging questions mean that the individual listened and found enough content of merit to warrant a discussion.

[Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes you’re just going to get folks who ask questions to prove they are smart or to gain satisfaction from the schadenfraude of watching someone squirm. I’d like to think those folks are few and far between. But you see them at every conference and in nearly every lecture hall – They of the 30-Minute Question Setup For A Question that Isn’t Really A Question. Best you can do there is try not to fall asleep during the setup. ;)]

Even still, with all my logical understanding of these dynamics, and all my years of improv and performance, the fight or flight instinct is still pretty powerful – because this is me and my opinions on trial, rather than improv where I’m simply bringing someone else’s suggestions to life! The first steps for me when trying to handle any Q&A with grace is to breathe deeply, put myself in the questioner’s shoes, and remember not to immediately assume antagonistic intentions. Then you’re on a presumably calm footing for a good, open discussion.

Oh, and smiling. It’s amazing how easy it is to telegraph anger or concern, which might put your audience at unease. This one is HARD, but it helps make the whole thing look easy, like a magic trick, even if your inner monologue is closer to “ohmygodthissucksIneedadrink”.

Today will be a different sort of experience – as moderator for the annual Women in Technology panel at TechEd, my responsibility will be less answering questions and more setting the other panelists up for success. It’s been heavily promoted at the conference, so I’m hoping for great turnout and great discussion!

If you’re inspired to share in the comments, I’d love to hear your own Q&A success stories or perhaps horror stories.