Handling Difficult Q&A, Panel Discussions, Interviews, Emceeing

I recently attended an event where journalist Judy Woodruff interviewed famed architect Santiago Calatrava. That interview surfaced two issues that show up routinely in the workplace: at management and sales meetings, at industry conferences, and during all-hands employee meetings.

What do these venues have in common? Frequent programming that features “interviews.” Moderators hosting a panel of experts. Emcees talking with guests from the audience. Speakers asking for input from volunteers in the audience.

Let me get more specific about three difficult situations:

3 Tips for How to Handle Difficult Situations in Emceeing, Interviewing, and Q&A From the Audience

Change of Moods

Immediately prior to Woodruff’s segment on the program, another speaker gave a heart-wrenching story about her husband's struggle with cancer and eventual death, leaving her with three small children. It would have been a major mistake for Woodruff to open her interview with lighthearted banter.

Response/technique: In this case, Ms. Woodruff took the stage, paused, greeted the hushed audience in a subdued manner. Then she commented with empathy on the previous speaker's story, and asked the audience to applaud once more to show their admiration for the young woman’s courage and action in the situation. That segue allowed her to lift the mood and move the audience along to a lighter mood for the interview to follow.

Other techniques for similar situations:

  • Ask the audience to turn to someone and share their feelings, insights, or “next step” based on what they’ve just heard. The energy in the room will invariably rise just because of the simultaneous sharing and noise. Then you can segue to a lighter moment.
  • Summarize what’s gone before with one more “call to action” (in the way previously mentioned).
  • Simply allow more time to pause as you take the stage. (Enter more slowly than usual.) Deliver a more subdued introduction than you might normally use, gradually changing the energy level and emotional setting during the first few moments.

Heavy Accents

In our global workplace, it’s quite common that the audience may be listening to someone with a heavy accent—someone who speaks the language of the audience as their second or even third or fourth language.

Woodruff's assignment at the meeting: Interviewing an accomplished guest who was a second-language English speaker with a heavy accent and a penchant for digging into the technical details of his craft.

Response/technique: Woodruff asked her questions with very simple language, and then repeated each question in a couple of different ways before she turned the floor over to the guest. That rewording ensured that the interviewee understood clearly what she was asking. Then after the architect’s answer, she summarized for the audience very succinctly what he'd said.

Other techniques for similar situations:

  • Use your facial expression to communicate very subtly to the guest that you do not understand. The speaker will often rephrase the idea with different, easier-to-understand words.
  • Own the problem yourself with humor: “I didn’t have enough caffeine this morning. Can you repeat that phrase please?”
  • Label the problem as a hearing issue: “Louder please?” or “I didn’t catch that?”
  • If the person with the accent is in the audience, make eye contact with others nearby as if to ask, “What did he/she say?” (They will often speak up with more clarity.)

Surprise Questions

Surprise questions often backfire, embarrass both parties, and disappoint the audience. As an author, I’ve done thousands of radio, TV, print, and podcast interviews. With the exception of radio hosts, virtually all journalists send questions, or at least topics, to their guests ahead of time.

Why? They don’t want your off-the-cuff comments. They want your considered comments—your true feelings, insightful ideas, and specific data or stories. Of course, the host may ask spontaneous follow-up questions. But very rarely do they “wing it” through the entire interview. If both guest and host are great at their jobs, the interview may sound that way. It just doesn’t happen that way.

Other techniques for similar situations:

  • In lieu of sending questions to interviewees, ask your guests to suggest questions they’d like for you to ask.
  • Survey your audience ahead of time to ask what questions they want your quests to answer, and forward those to your guests.
  • Ask your audience to add questions in a “chat box.” Then your guests can answer the ones they’d like to respond to and omit the ones they’d rather not answer.

So if you’re interviewing, emceeing, or moderating some event—whether a telephone conference, an expert panel for live broadcast, or planning an executive panel to take questions from the employee audience––don’t think “surprise!” Think preparation.

Interviews work well—as long as you (the interviewer) do!

Learn more communication tips to help you interview, emcee or handle difficult audience Q&A. Grab a copy of Communicate Like A Leader: To Coach, Inspire And Get Things Done. Download an excerpt here: http://www.communicatelikealeaderbook.com/excerpt

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