A 4-Step Plan to Make Your Q&A More Audience-Friendly
by Lauren Weinstein and Matt Abrahams
The Q&A or fireside chat has become a popular format at events like conferences and employee town-halls, replacing more-formal presentations and panels. The one-on-one format can create a more conversational, interesting, and intimate experience, and has the added benefit that the CEO or luminary being interviewed theoretically doesn’t have to prepare as much.
Despite how effective interviews can be in theory, however, they are often difficult to execute in practice. As a result, audience members are often left feeling disengaged and unsatisfied while guests struggle to inform and engage in a way that resonates.
In our Essentials of Strategic Communication at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, we’ve begun including advice on how to handle this format effectively to help our students become more confident and compelling communicators. We offer four steps — easily remembered by the acronym FIRE — derived from our teaching and coaching experience.
Framing. In preparing for interviews, most guests ask “What do I want to say?” But the most effective guests ask “What does my audience need to hear?” Since the time of the Greeks, we have known that the best communication is that which is in service of the audience — it answers the questions they have and provides them with the specific insights they’re looking to acquire.
Customizing your content based on your audience matters. Therefore, before any fireside chat or other one-on-one interview, take time to do some reconnaissance and reflection about your audience and frame your content accordingly. Ask the following questions:
- “What does my audience care about most?”
- “What motivates them?”
- “What do they expect to learn or gain?”
- “What biases or hesitations might they have?”
- “What knowledge level do they bring to the session?”
If you can’t confidently answer these questions yourself, ask them of the interviewer, event host, or consult the social media of those who will be attending.
You will also benefit by having a clear speaking goal. A good speaking goal is about information, emotion, and action. It answers the following questions about how your audience will leave your fireside chat:
- What do I want my audience to know?
- How do I want my audience to feel?
- What do I want my audience to do?
Your answers to these questions will help inform your content and how it is framed. By understanding your audience and having a clear speaking goal, you can tailor your content for maximum impact — leaving your audience walking away with exactly what they were hoping to acquire and you with what you were hoping to achieve.
Inclusion. The effectiveness of the interview format lies in the sense of intimacy and familiarity they create. We know from research and our own experience that audience inclusion is powerful, leading to more positive perceptions of a speaker, greater motivation to future action, and better recall of content.
A good Q&A invites the audience into the experience. Two effective ways to do this are by (1) using inclusive language and (2) polling the audience.
For inclusive language, consider referencing the audience directly and using “you” and “we” when possible. For example you might say…
- “Like many of you, I…”
- “We all have…”
- “Who among us has (hasn’t)…”
For polling, consider in advance what questions you might want to ask the audience. For example, “How many of you have had X experience…?” or “Who can tell me…?” In the former case, be sure to raise your hand as you ask the question so you signal to the audience how you’d like for them to respond. Be sure to comment on whatever answers you get to validate the audience’s involvement and encourage future participation.
If your audience feels included in the conversation, they will be more engaged and responsive to your message.
Rails. To keep a train on track, you need strong rails. Similarly, to keep your content on track, we recommend using a structure to guide you. While many structures exist, such as Problem-Solution-Benefit and Comparison-Contrast-Conclusion, one of our favorite structures is the What? > So What? > Now What? structure.
You start your response by providing your point and giving an example to support it (The What?). Next, you explain why your point is important to the conversation at hand and potentially beyond (The So What?). Finally, you end by explaining the implications, ramifications, or applications of what you just said (The Now What?).
Using a structure will make it easier for you to develop your content when speaking in a spontaneous manner, make it easier for your audience to follow your response, and allow for clear, concise answers in place of rambling, unfocused ones.
Examples. Chip Heath, a colleague of ours at Stanford, has conducted extensive research on what makes ideas “stick” — that is what makes them memorable, engaging, and inspiring. His number one piece of advice? Make your ideas concrete. That is, take abstract concepts and bring them to life with concrete stories, details, and examples.
During fireside chats and other one-on-one interviews, guests tend to speak at a general level — to offer concepts and conclusions — without concrete examples and stories (including personal ones) that will help make their content more engaging, understandable, and relatable for their audience.
As you prepare for your next interview, we suggest the following: make a list of all the key points, themes, best practices, etc. you’d like to be prepared to share with your audience. Then go back through that list and for each item, write down a concrete story or example you could share to support it and make it “stickier.” Stories and examples can be real or imagined as well as about you or a third person.
What’s most important is that you make your ideas and messages as concrete as possible by adding vivid details. Doing so will make your content not only more engaging in the moment, but also more memorable and motivating in the days and weeks that follow.
The Original Fireside Chat
Given we practice what we preach, we’ll provide you with an example of how this looks in action (although in this case, it was a kind of a speech rather than an interview).
When Franklin Roosevelt took office in March 1933, one quarter of the nation was unemployed, stocks were down 75%, and across the country people were panicked, quickly pulling their money out of failing banks. He needed to convince Americans to trust him and put their money back in the banks. He gave his first “fireside chat” over the radio just a week after being sworn in. This manner of addressing the public in such an intimate and informal way was described as a “revolutionary experiment.” It was wildly successful. Not only did Roosevelt’s chats attract more listeners than the most popular radio shows of the time and inspire record numbers of fan mail, they also allowed him to establish high levels of trust and support during a time of crisis.
In these addresses, he framed his message accordingly: he understood the public was panicked, so he used clear, concise language and a tone that was comforting. Instead of speaking abstractly about the challenges of the financial system, he used inclusive language: “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.” He also used rails to give structure to what he was saying: “I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be.” He also used examples to great effect: “Let me illustrate with an example. Take the cotton goods industry…”
Knowing what his audience needed paid off. The day after his first address, banks across the country opened to long lines of people waiting to put their money back in. He had restored trust and confidence in a previously insecure public.
Today’s Q&A-based fireside chats can also be a valuable opportunity to inspire, engage, and powerfully connect with an audience. By remembering the principles embodied in the acronym FIRE, you can maximize the value of them for both you and your audience.