In 2001, I was a candidate for the Green Party in New Zealand. I spent a ton of time preparing for the “Meet the Candidate” meetings.
But I didn’t spend most of my time on planning my presentation. I spent most of my time preparing for the Q&A. I knew this would be the most important part of my performance, and where I was most likely to get hammered if I wasn’t prepared.
And because I’m an introvert, thinking on my feet is not a natural strength. As introverts we’re great at planning what we want to say ahead of time, winging it – not so much.
That’s because of the fundamental difference between extroverts and introverts. Extroverts do well in a highly stimulating environment, whereas introverts do better in a lower stimulation environment. When there is a high level of stimulation it interferes with our working memory and makes it harder to think on our feet.
So I needed to plan for the Q&A. Here’s the 3 step process I followed.
1. Brainstorm Questions
I brainstormed a list of possible questions that people in the audience might ask me. I asked friends what questions they might ask me, particularly friends who weren’t natural supporters of the Green Party. These were the questions that wouldn’t occur to me because I was already so familiar with Green Party policies.
This is a common problem for subject-matter experts. It even has a name “The Curse of Knowledge”. Because you know your topic so well, it’s difficult for you to imagine what it’s like to not have that knowledge. So when you’re planning your Q&A, and you’re presenting to an audience of lay people, don’t ask your fellow experts what questions they would have, ask someone who has a similar level of knowledge and similar attitudes to your audience.
2. Prepare Answers
Next, I worked out answers to each of the questions I came up with in step #1. There were 3 things I tried to do in each answer:
- I acknowledged the concern behind the question. This was particularly important in the context of representing the Green Party in the early 2000s. Many people weren’t familiar with their policies and what little knowledge they had from the media often scared them. For example, at that time the Green Party’s policy of legalizing marijuana was seen as extreme and dangerous. So I would start my answer to any question about marijuana by saying “I understand that the idea of legalizing a drug that we have been told is dangerous can seem frightening.”
- Where I could, I would find common ground: “What we all want to do is to reduce the harm that is caused by drugs – whether they’re legal or illegal”. OK this was a bit sneaky, I dropped in the line about “legal or illegal” to prepare the ground for what I was about to say next.
- Then I would make my point in a clear and succinct way: “The Green Party believes that the best way to reduce harm from marijuana use is to provide treatment to those who want it. That’s much easier to do when the drug is legal, as in the case of tobacco, where a number of treatment options are available.”
(Note: The current marijuana debate is well beyond this in many countries around the world, but this way of approaching the issue worked in New Zealand in 2001. And if you have strong views about the legalization of marijuana, don’t get side-tracked by my content, this post is about my process :-)).
3. Practice Out Loud
I wrote out each questions on a 3×5 inch index card. I ended up with a thick stack of cards. Then whenever my husband and I went walking the dogs, I would hand the stack over to him, ask him to shuffle it, and interrogate me. I practiced answering each question over and over again. As I practiced articulating my answers I often came up with improvements to my original.
The Meet the Candidate meetings were nerve-wracking, sometimes fractious and I got more than my share of hecklers. But I nailed the Q&A.
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Being a political candidate sounds scary! After facing so many hecklers, I imagine other speaking must seem like a breeze.
When preparing, that’s a good tip to ask people who are similar to your audience. (Too often, speakers are in their own little bubble, cut off from their listeners.)
If you’re speaking online, people can get distracted really easily. So for the Q&A, you might recall a tip I call “stop &A hypnosis”. That gives people something relevant to look at during the Q&A, but without distracting them.
It was scary Craig! But I knew to expect hecklers -it’s an accepted and expected part of political life. So in “normal” speaking it can take you by surprise.
You might also like this video about Q&A. It has tips on prepping for and running your session, by the late Denise Graveline (who wrote The Eloquent Woman blog).
For instance, she talks about what to do if the audience is hostile, or even if there’s a “troll” who’s trying to make you look bad. I hope you find it useful.