Don't end your presentation on Q&A... serve dessert instead

Think of the last time you had to do a presentation. Now think of the moment that you had to ask the obligatory final question of your audience: "Do you have any questions?" How did you feel at that moment? Petrified? Excited? Whatever you felt, I'm here to tell you: what you should've felt is the incredibly scary feeling of having given your audience permission to derail your presentation. By ending with Q&A, you basically tossed the ball back to them, saying, "Hey, you guys finish up here, cool?"

There are exactly two possible outcomes to the "Do you have any questions?" question: either they have questions or they don't. If they don't have questions, you have to suffer through an awkward and generally painful 10-count of staring at your audience with equal parts hopefulness and dismay. That doesn't feel good for either you or the audience. Once the 10-count has elapsed, you end up muttering something like, "Okay, then, um, thanks." SUPER-POWERFUL way to end your talk, eh? If they do have questions, the question-askers now have the power to direct your comments hither and thither, effectively determining the new focus and tone for your talk. So those painful and/or annoying Q&A situations in which they've asked a question you didn't want to answer or weren't prepared to answer, or they clearly just want to hear themselves talk, or they're asking a question entirely unrelated to your presentation, or they're asking a really contentious or combative question that leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouths is that how you want your presentation to end? 

If you choose to end your presentation with Q&A, you're choosing to give up a very important thing: control. You're giving up the right to decide what the audience's final impression of you will be what they'll feel as you close, and what they'll remember when your presentation is over. So what am I saying here? Simple: don't end on Q&A. For every presentation, as you're winding to a close, do this instead:

  • In no more than three sentences, summarize the key message of your presentation: what it is you want your audience to KNOW and FEEL. 
  • Say something like, "And now I'd like to pause for Q&A, as I'd love to take some of your questions before I close. We have approximately __ minutes for Q&A." (Don't forget to set those expectations!)
  • Once Q&A has wound down, draw them back, saying, "In closing, I'd like to..." and then haul it in... with a story, anecdote, or powerful set of facts that somehow reinforces the importance of your message. This is called the "dessert," and it's designed to pack the emotional punch that leaves your audience FEELING something... and remembering your central message, and you, much more clearly than if you'd simply finished with a lackluster Q&A. 
  • Then, say thank you, and feel victorious.

Ostensibly you'd like your presentation to be something that, looking back, your audience feels was valuable. That's exactly what the dessert helps you do. Ending with dessert rather than Q&A lets you take back control with a carefully selected and rehearsed statement one that leaves you as the one holding all the power. 

As We Speak: How to Make Your Point and Have It Stick is the source of this excellent advice. I was introduced to Peter Meyers' approach to presentations during my time at EY, and I'm forever thankful for it. It's absolutely transformed how I approach presentations, and how I advise others about their presentations. 

So onto your inevitable final question: I bet you'd like to see some examples of good desserts, right? So that you can better understand what the heck I'm recommending? I'm happy to oblige... in next week's blog. Stay tuned. :)