The question and answer portion of a presentation or panel discussion is hold-your-breath time for event organizers, as it can go one of two ways:
ONE: It’s either the icing on the cake, a way to engage the audience by letting them air thoughtful questions and opinions, and let the speakers know which hot-button topics are forefront in people’s minds.
TWO: Or it’s the inmates taking over the asylum, marked by off-topic rants, rambling statements poorly masquerading as questions, and anything else that can go wrong when random people are given a microphone.
Given that the Q&A section is the last impression attendees leave with, and how unpredictable it can be, it’s surprising it’s not given more forethought. Let’s break down the options and best practices. There are two basic methods of running audience Q&A: direct questioning and indirect questioning.
Option 1: Direct Questioning
How It Works
This is the most popular model, where attendees ask questions themselves. In smaller rooms, attendees raise their hands and wait to be called on. For larger rooms they line up behind a standing mic or wait for a runner to bring a cordless mic to them.
- Engages the audience, makes them feel included.
- Speakers can gauge the audience’s temperature. People’s passions and concerns about topics come through when they ask questions themselves, include personal stories, etc.
- No way to identify common topics the audience wants to hear. You have to muscle through the questions one at a time.
- No way of knowing what someone will say in advance. More difficult to contain rogue questions that may be inappropriate, ramblers, self-promoters, etc.
- Cover fewer questions than by using cards or app.
- People fearful of public speaking will not participate.
- Repeat the question: If there are no audience microphones, it’s critical that the speaker/moderator repeat the question so the audience can hear it. If the session is being recorded or live-streamed, this also provides proper audio capture.
- Summarize longwinded questions: Attendees often ramble in delivering their questions, so it’s incumbent on the speaker to summarize and clarify it. If it’s more a statement than a question, they should find a relevant angle in it and address that.
- Cut off sermonizers or self-promoters: The best defense against this is to lay out the rules of the Q&A up front. Simply alerting the audience that you’ll cut off any ramblers and won’t tolerate self-promoters will go a long way toward easing the problem. If someone still persists, the speaker should interrupt them if they haven’t started to ask a clear question in 10 seconds. Use phrases like “We want to get to as many people as possible, so I need you to ask your question please”, or “I’m sorry, but I need you to state your question please.”
- Raise the house lights: The house lights are usually dimmed when someone is on stage to make it easier for the audience to view the speaker. When starting the Q&A phase, be sure to raise the house lights so everyone can see the people asking questions.
- When using mic runners: Have ample mic runners. Have enough mic runners to cover the room relatively quickly. Make them visible. No lurking in the back of the room. They should be in the front so people can get their attention without having to turn around. Wait until the mic arrives. Have the speaker or moderator tell the person with the question to wait until the mic arrives before speaking.
- When using mic stands: One should be placed at the foot of each aisle, or if the set up doesn’t have aisles they should be spread out so people don’t have too far to go. And don’t put them out too soon, otherwise people lining up will distract from the speakers.
Option 2: Indirect Questioning
How It Works
Attendees submit questions via writing on cards which are passed to runners, or through an app. The moderator/speaker then reviews the questions and reads out loud those he/she wants to address. For larger events a producer/stage manager can organize the questions into topics and priorities, and then bring to the speaker.
- You get to see all questions submitted and identify & prioritize popular topics.
- There’s zero chance of someone rambling, sermonizing or self-promoting.
- Ability to screen out inappropriate or antagonistic questions.
- Anyone who is uncomfortable with public speaking can still submit a question. *This is often one of the biggest benefits.
- Ability for people to submit anonymous questions on delicate topics.
- Collect far more questions this way. Even if you can’t address all of them, it’s valuable data and insight.
- Not nearly as interactive or engaging.
- Not as good for capturing emotion, passion, or personal stories behind questions.
Screen and organize questions off-stage: Have a trusted assistant review, organize and prioritize questions off-stage, before bringing to the speaker.
Avoid dead air: Some speakers prefer to weed through the submissions themselves in real time. If so, remind them that even a few seconds of quiet (dead air) is unsettling to the audience and can dull the momentum. One solution is for them to kick off a starting question, and they can review the remainder while that one is being answered.
Audience Q&A sessions can be a highlight of a presentation, but they can also go off the rails quickly. With a nominal amount of planning, however, you can properly manage the risks while creating an engaging coda to an informative session.
What do you do to create an engaging Q&A? Comment below!
Author: Howard Givner is the Founder & Executive Director of the Event Leadership Institute. He can be reached at howard@EventLeadershipInstitute.com