Most Q&A sessions are mediocre experiences at best: an instantly forgettable interlude before the coffee break. The very format, I’d argue, is a dysfunctional relic of the past, unthinkingly added to agendas everywhere, and I believe we need to rethink it.To be clear, it’s not that the intention of having a Q&A session is bad. For better or worse, most conferences leave the audience in “listening mode” most of the time, so it can make perfect sense to give the participants a voice and allow for some unscripted interaction with the speakers. But in reality, nine times out of ten, the Q&A sessions end up being the weakest part of the event.
There are many reasons for this, including the fact that not all speakers are good at handling questions, but the fundamental issue comes down to two things: audience inactivity and the quality of the incoming questions. In my experience, about a third of the people who grab the microphone will ask interesting questions. Another third will either ramble or pose a narrow question that is really only relevant to the person asking it. And the final third don’t have a question — they just want to say something, which can be fine, only the Q&A format somehow makes that awkward. Meanwhile, 95 percent of the audience is still stuck in passive listening mode.
Some solutions to the Q&A dysfunction already exist. Some hire a professional moderator or use software tools to crowdsource the questions. Others experiment with radically new ways to run events, such as the unconference movement. However, those solutions are often expensive or time-consuming to deploy, making them infeasible for many types of events. Here are four techniques that I’ve used with great results, and that can be deployed without any kind of preparation:
- Do an inverse Q&A. An inverse Q&A is when I (the speaker) pose a question to the audience, asking them to discuss it with the person sitting next to them. A good question is, “For you, what was a key take-away from this session? What might you do differently going forward?” People love the opportunity to voice their thoughts to someone and unlike the traditional Q&A, this approach allows everybody to have their say. It also helps them network with each other in a natural manner, which is something many conferences don’t really cater to.
- Ask for reactions, not just questions. When you debrief on the small-group discussion, insisting on the question format makes it awkward for the people who just want to share something. As you open the floor, specifically say “What are your reactions to all this? Questions are great, but you are also welcome to just share an observation, it doesn’t have to be in the form of a question.”
- Have people vet the questions in groups. An alternative to the inverse Q&A is to ask people to find good questions in groups. Simply say, “Please spend a minute or two in small groups, and try to find a good question or a reflection you think is relevant for everybody.” Then walk around the room and listen as people talk. If you hear an interesting reflection, ask them to bring it up during the joint discussion, or bring it up yourself.
- Share a final story after the Q&A. Given that even the best-run Q&A session is unpredictable, it is best to have the Q&A as the second-to-last element. I always stop the Q&A part a few minutes before the end, so I have time to share one final example before getting off the stage. That way, even if the Q&A part falls flat, you can still end your session with a bang instead of a fizzle.
The above methods can help you turn any keynote into a better experience. What other techniques — ideally simple ones — have you seen or used?