Any questions? Rethinking traditional Q&A

Any questions? Rethinking traditional Q&AHow often have you heard “Any questions?” at the end of a conference session?

Hands rise, and the presenter picks an audience member who asks a question. The presenter answers the question and picks another questioner. The process continues for a few minutes.

Simple enough. We’ve been using this Q&A format for centuries.

But can we improve it?

Yes!

Let’s explore, starting with…

Six criticisms of traditional Q&A

  • Traditional Q&A reinforces the engrained assumption that the presenter is the expert, and audience members are relative novices. This ignores today’s reality that the smartest person in the room is the room.
  • Traditional Q&A is a one-to-many process. These days, conference attendees come to learn and connect. But the only connection going on (if any) during traditional Q&A  is between the presenter and individual audience members.
  • Have you ever thought, “I could answer that question better than [the person on stage]!”? Traditional Q&A provides no opportunity for obtaining answers from audience members.
  • Who gets to ask questions? The presenter decides, allowing any implicit (and explicit) bias full reign.
  • How much time is available for questions? Again, the presenter decides. Too little time scheduled frustrates audience members whose questions remain unanswered. Too much time leads to a premature session close.
  • During traditional Q&A, the questioner is in the audience while the presenter is up on stage. As a result, questioners remain largely anonymous; audience members can’t even see a questioner behind them without turning round.

Ways to improve Q&A

I can think of two fundamental ways to improve Q&A. Here are…

Five ways to refine the traditional Q&A format

  • Include multiple Q&A opportunities throughout the session. This helps audience members get answers to questions while they’re top-of-mind, rather than waiting until the end of the session. It also increases interaction with the presenter, which can help maintain attendee attention and improve learning.
  • Instead of the presenter picking the questioners, have an independent third party (a moderator) choose them.
  • Or you can have the audience submit questions via an app and then vote on the list. This helps uncover popular questions.
  • If you’re using a moderator, have the audience submit questions in writing or via an app. This allows the moderator to curate questions to be asked. When appropriate, the moderator can combine similar questions.
  • Instead of taking questions from the audience, have questioners line up at a front-of-room mike so everyone can see them.

Or, we can…

Further improve Q&A by integrating it into a discussion format

Traditional sessions have two parts, first a lecture, and then Q&A. As mentioned above, presenting multiple short pieces of content interspersed with Q&A increases interaction and consequent learning. But we can do better!

Combined with experiential exercises, here’s the approach I use in my Participate! Labs.

Using a facilitated discussion format like the fishbowl sandwich, I create a session that offers Q&A on an as-needed basis. As I share content, attendees can join me on stage at any time for questions or a discussion that I moderate. (Check the link to see how this works.) The session then becomes more like a live Ask Me Anything (AMA) around my content.

Creating a truly participative Q&A in this way lets the resulting questions and discussions reflect the audience’s just-in-time needs, optimizing the value of the session for participants.

Do you have additional suggestions for improving Q&A? Share them in the comments below!