Handling a meeting question that isn’t

Dealing with questions that aren'tWe’ve all experienced the meeting question that isn’t. A session presenter or moderator asks for questions and someone stands up and starts spouting their own opinions. A concluding question (if they even have one) is little more than an excuse for their own speech.

Are you tired of attendees making statements during question time? Here are ways to deal with audience questions that aren’t actually questions.

Clearly convey your desired format and that questions are expected

Decide on ground rules for asking questions
Determine the ground rules for audience questions before the session.

Where will questions be asked: e.g. from a stage or roving mike?

What format should the questioner use: e.g. state name and organization, who the question is for (if a panel session), ask the question in one sentence, take less than thirty seconds.

Explain the ground rules before audience questions
Clearly explain the expected format for questions. Here’s what David Gergen says:

“If you would, identify yourself, be fairly succinct, and remember that a question ends with a question mark.”
—David Gergen, CNN commentator

Maintain control during question time

Interrupt and steer rambling questioners back on track
If an audience member rambles, interrupt (repeatedly if need be) with “Can you put that into a question?” and/or “Is this leading to a question?”

Don’t surrender the microphone
Once an audience member has a live microphone in their hand their mouth can potentially run amok. So roaming moderators or audience runners should never surrender the microphone. If you’re using a stage microphone, agree on a signal for your A/V staff to cut its feed if necessary.

Finally, two ways to eliminate live questions

Replace live questions with screened questions
Taking audience live questions has been traditional for centuries, but that doesn’t mean we have to do things the same way today. Instead, screen questions using:

  • Question cards: Distribute note cards to the audience at the start, and explain how to use them to take questions. Collect cards at the appropriate time.
  • Texting, tweeting, or an app: Explain how and when to use a cell number (text), hashtag (tweet), or conference app to submit questions.

Plan and staff an appropriate method to select questions to answer. Read out each screened question to the audience (or have a staff member do it.)

Consider using meeting formats where attendee opinions are welcome
The ultimate method of avoiding “questions that aren’t” is to use session formats where contributions from audience members are encouraged and welcome! My book The Power of Participation contains a comprehensive tool chest of formats you can use to integrate questions and contributions seamlessly into conference sessions.

Do you have further ways to handle meeting questions that aren’t? Share them in the comments below!

Photo attribution: Flickr user thejointstaff

A HT to two excellent books — Priya Parker‘s The Art of Gathering and Kristin Arnold‘s Powerful Panels — for ideas and quotes used in this post.

One thought on “Handling a meeting question that isn’t

  1. Adrian, I don’t think you mentioned this method, although I’m sure you’ve used it:
    1. People are seated at round tables.
    2. After each talk they discuss what they made of it and decide on one question to ask the speaker. This is written on a card, which is collected by a steward.
    3. After each break, people are invited to move to a different table. They are encouraged to swap business cards.
    4. The conference team sorts the Qs into themes and selects the most potent ones.
    5. Towards the end of the conference, the speakers form a panel, and the chair/MC/etc puts the selected Qs to appropriate speakers.
    6. This is a supplementary idea: After (5), participant names on slips of paper go into an ostentatious top hat. One is pulled out and the winner gets a magnum of champagne. This is called the Tenacity Award, designed to encourage participants to remain until the conference ends.
    The originator of this method was the late and utterly fabulous Jeffrey Hyman, founder of Food & Drink Innovation Network: https://bit.ly/2MbkFPc

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