How to ace the toughest public speaking challenges
A guide to surviving interviews, AMA, fireside chats, podcasts, and audience Q&A
Following up on my public speaking 101 guide, here’s everything else you need to know to ace the hardest public speaking formats:
- AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions
- Fireside chats
- Audience questions after your talk
Before we get into the nitty gritty of the formats, let’s mention something they all have in common: you’ll need advanced tools for getting out of awkward questions gracefully. Check out How To Deal With Tricky Questions for advanced PR jiu-jitsu on that topic.
Guide to the formats: Interviews, AMA, fireside chats, podcasts, and audience Q&A
It’s what my public speaking 101 guide already has you covered for, so that’s a good place to start reading if you haven’t come across it already… or read on for the tougher formats!
This happens at the end of your solo talk if organizers leave some time for questions. Here comes my potentially unpopular opinion: Unless we’re talking about a classroom/workshop format, audience Q&A brings happiness to only one entity… and it’s not you or the audience. Instead, it’s the organizer who benefits most since Q&A helps them meet expectations dictated by tradition. It helps them create an atmosphere that tries to trigger the joy of the university classroom in a place that really isn’t a university.
Here’s the thing: You’ve prepared your talk carefully. You hopefully rehearsed it in front of your friendly firing squad and incorporated their feedback. You’ve already addressed the obvious questions that everyone wants answered. What are the chances that the remaining individual questions are interesting to everyone in the room? Miniscule. Wouldn’t the audience be better served with more content made for all of them instead of sitting through your reaction to something only one of them cares about? Exactly.
I usually offer to take individual questions outside the room if people want to come chat. You’ll find me loitering outside after my talks and you’ll notice how people drift in and out of the circle of spectators because, as expected, not every question hits a topic that interests everyone. That’s the best of all worlds — individual questions answered and audience time spent efficiently.
Handling questions individually after your talk means that conversation rules, as opposed to on-stage rules, apply.
Despite this logic, sometimes I still take audience Q&A and maybe you will choose to as well. In that case, approach it like you’d approach AMA (a more challenging format) and you’ll be golden.
Ask Me Anything (AMA)
In my opinion, AMA (Ask-Me-Anything) is the most flammable format of the bunch. If you think you have nothing to hide, why do you close the door when you go to the toilet? Some things are private and you’d prefer them to stay private.
I only agree to AMAs if I’m feeling low on adrenaline. You really could be asked anything, so the first thing to know is that you need to be prepared to dodge and waffle if your privacy or the privacy of your company/clients/friends gets invaded by prying minds. Practice those skills before agreeing to it.
The easiest AMA format is one where there are electronic tools helping to collect and vet questions from the audience. If either you or a moderator are using such a tool, it gives the option of rephrasing questions into the form you’re most comfortable with. (This assumes you’ve got the wisdom not to project the questions onto a screen where everyone can see them.)
If there’s no question-collecting tool and you’re dealing with roaming mics that collect questions from the public, things are trickier. Most of the questions will be perfectly lovely and make you happy to be part of our species and just as you’re relaxing… wham! You get one of the Big Five:
- Something that only makes sense in the asker’s head.
- A rambling statement that’s only thinly disguised as a question.
- A question full of jargon that you’d first have to define for the rest of the audience.
- Something shockingly inappropriate, e.g. “Are you single?”
- Something puzzlingly inappropriate to speaker/audience, e.g. “What should be done to help the situation with [thing you don’t know about] in [place you couldn’t accurately pinpoint on a map]?”
If you’re flying solo, all of these lend themselves to block-and-bridge, but they might also cause your face to twitch with irritation. It’s very helpful to have a moderator playing bodyshield between you and the public. (Even then, your audience will find a way to throw you a curveball.) Here’s what you do to take maximum advantage of a moderator: ask them to restate every question before you answer it. If you’re extra tough-and-savvy, you’ll push the moderator to work hard by asking them to agree to rephrase all questions before you’ll take them.
By having a moderator to digest these questions into their best selves, you’ll have more control over the urge to knit your brows in bafflement or annoyance. Without a skilled moderator to protect you, you’ll want to forgo AMA until you’re the paragon of pleasant patience and grace under fire.
The fireside chat is like a panel where you’re the only panelist, so it might be worth reading the panel masterclass guide. The main difference between it and an interview in front of an audience is that the moderator is not hostile — as your ally, their job is to make the fireside chat entertaining and lovely for everyone. Do make sure they’re your ally, though. It’s worth spending time with them beforehand or at least checking their reputation carefully.
Interviews, including podcasts
Always ask for interview questions in advance (sometimes your request will be declined) and be sure that you know how and where (article, podcast, TV news, etc.) your answers will be used. If you’re being recorded, ask how the footage will be cut and edited. Cutting gives you the benefit of multiple takes until you’re happy with your answers. Take your time. Even if they’re happy and you’re not, take the question again until you are. (Within reason — remember to ask how much time they plan to spend with you.)
Knowing the plan in advance will let you know the difficulty level of what you’re signing up for, which ranges from a written article by a collaborative reporter (easiest) to a single-take TV news interview by a hostile reporter (hardest).
When the interviewer is collaborative and friendly, interviews are great fun. If they’re recording you, skilled interviewers usually start with something irrelevant to get you comfortable. For example, a reporter recently started by asking me what I’d had for breakfast.
Reporters always appreciate pithy sound bites, so you can help them by gathering and summarizing your thoughts again at the end, especially if you suspect you’ve rambled. Ramblings are a nightmare to cut.
When it comes to podcasts, remember that your challenge is to hold the audience’s attention for many minutes (tell good stories!) and the best way to fail at that is by reading pre-written answers. Prepare by talking the question over with a friend before the podcast, jotting down one-word notes to cue your thoughts, and then when you get to the recording booth… just speak. Engage in banter with the host. A beginner attempting to read paragraphs usually results in a cringeworthy podcast.
If the interviewer is hostile and wants to catch you off-guard, then I recommend declining the interview until you’ve mastered the art of the dodge. With the most hostile adversaries, you should also be careful not to arm them with sound bites which make you look horrible out of context. Stick with short sentences (avoid clauses, especially those connected by the word “but”) and don’t let yourself get flustered. Consider this example of something I’ve said often:
- “In AI, diversity is a must, not a nice-to-have.”
- “In AI, diversity is not a nice-to-have, it’s a must.”
These sentences convey the same meaning, but look at what a hostile editor can do:
- “In AI, diversity is a must.”
- “In AI, diversity is not a nice-to-have.”
See the difference? I recommend the former, though I’ll be the first to admit I’m not perfect at keeping my wits about me.
Practice makes perfect
If all that sounds intimidating, take a deep breath! None of the pros were born with black belts in interview-jutsu. At the end of the day, it takes practice to work your way up to being able to handle the more difficult Q&A formats. A great place to start is by participating in panels, which give you opportunities to hone your craft in easy mode. If you’re keen to master this art, start gently, stick with it, and progress at your own pace. Good luck and have fun!