Ask Me Anything—a better alternative to guest lectures

Ask Me Anything

Recently, I’ve been appearing as a guest at college event planning and hospitality courses to talk about meeting design. (I love to do this. Teachers, please contact me, it’s free!) Rather than lecture for an hour, I’ve been using an Ask Me Anything (aka AMA) meeting format.

Here’s why I think Ask Me Anything is almost always a better session format than a lecture.

I’ve written extensively on this blog (1, 2, 3) and in my books about why the meeting lecture is a terrible way to learn. (A one-sentence distillation: learning is a process not an event.)

But suppose a group gets the opportunity to spend time with a content expert who knows a lot more about their field than anyone else present? Isn’t a lecture the best format to use in these circumstances?

Well…sometimes. First, let’s explore the circumstances when a lecture may be the way to go. Then I’ll make a case for why an Ask Me Anything format is usually a better choice.

When a lecture is appropriate

Lectures have one thing going for them. They are very efficient ways to share a lot of information with a group.

Short talks

The problem with broadcasting information is, of course, that the recipients are passive attendees. And they may well not be attending. Research shows that our ability to absorb and retain broadcast information falls rapidly over time. To avoid significant “tuning out” it’s vital to share content in small chunks, typically not more than ten minutes long.

So one scenario where lectures work is when they are short. I’m a big fan of carefully prepared five-minute lightning talks and Pecha Kucha (6 minutes, 40 seconds) and Ignite (5 minutes) formats. The latter are invariably entertaining, which helps people absorb and retain what’s presented.

Brilliant presenters

Some people — but not as many as you might think — are really good at creating effective learning experiences via a lecture format.

However, these folks are rarely the people who get the big bucks for their inspirational keynote speeches. Highly paid speakers are usually good at creating emotional experiences for their audiences. Now, there’s nothing wrong with creating an emotional experience for an audience. In fact, learning is often enhanced. Unfortunately, a great speaker may well provide a more enjoyable and emotionally satisfying presentation—but the learning that results is not significantly better than that provided by a mediocre lecturer!

Sadly, I can count on the fingers of one hand the presenters who taught me, via lecture, things I still retain to this day:

  • My mentor Jerry Weinberg (a genius at telling incredible stories that illustrated the learning he wanted to impart);
  • The molecular biologist John Medina (who always divides his lectures into ten-minute segments, each introduced with a relevant emotional hook); and
  • A few of my high school science teachers who knew the draw of enthusiastically performing exciting experiments in front of us (“What will happen?” “Can you figure it out?“)

Conclusions

So, unless your presenters speak for a short time or are brilliant (and I’m not including motivational speakers in that class), lectures are a lousy way for audiences to learn. We can do better.

Ask Me Anything — a better format for learning

We know that active learning is a superior modality for learning more, learning more accurately, and retaining learning. So, how can we incorporate active learning into a session where the session leader/presenter has far more expertise and knowledge than everyone else present, and time is limited?

An Ask Me Anything format provides a great way to improve session learning. Why? Two reasons.

First, the attendees are not passively sitting listening or watching but are actually interacting with each other (see below) or the presenter. That means that active learning is taking place, with all the benefits that ensue.

Second, an Ask Me Anything responds to what participants actually want and need. Rather than a presenter guessing exactly what their audience wants to learn, an Ask Me Anything ensures that many topics, issues, and questions that are top-of-mind for the audience will be addressed.

OK, let’s see how this works.

Warming up an Ask Me Anything with preliminary small group work

I suggest priming the audience with a couple of introductory pair- or trio- shares.

If meeting in person, have people move into small groups with others they don’t know. Online, move people into a set of Zoom’s automatically assigned breakout rooms, or another online platform’s equivalent.

Typically, the first trio share is a “take 90 seconds each to”: a) introduce yourself to the others in your group, or b) “share how you got to be in this class/session/event”.

On returning, ask everyone to think of one issue or question they’d really like to discuss with or get answered by the presenter. Emphasize that it can be anything they want to know or hear about.

When working with students, ask the class teacher to pose this exercise a few days before the class and collect and share responses with the entire class and me. This helps the presenter and them learn about what’s on students’ minds. Before running the next pair share, tell the students they don’t have to stay with what they submitted if something else has come to mind.

Next, run the second pair share, giving each member 90 seconds to share with their partner what they would most like to learn from the presenter. For students, this gives them a chance to prepare asking the presenter what they want in front of the class.

The Ask Me Anything

Running the Ask Me Anything is straightforward. Have your presenter ask for questions, and enter a dialog with each questioner in turn. If there are a slew of questions, use a fishbowl (in person) or hand raising (online) to control the flow. Remind your presenter that silence before someone speaks is OK; they don’t need to fill it by speaking themselves. Also make sure that everyone who wants to participate gets the opportunity before allowing more questions from people who have already spoken.

Closing pair share

I strongly recommend closing such sessions with a final pair share on “lessons learned”. This reinforces learning while it’s fresh, making it more likely to be retained, remembered more accurately, and retained longer. For more details, see my post on the fishbowl sandwich, or read the relevant chapter in my second and third books.

That’s it! What do you think of Ask Me Anything as a replacement for lectures in a session? Do you have comments to add or questions to ask? You can Ask Me Anything! Simply share in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Ask Me Anything—a better alternative to guest lectures

  1. In cases where I had a real range of newbies to experts in the audience, and the likelihood of more questions than time, I’ve used question rating to collectively prioritize which questions are of most importance to the most people. Using GroupMap.com (online) or Feedback Frames (in-person), as part of trio-shares, they generate question statements, and then individually rate others’ questions “Importance” on a scale of 1-5. After about 10 minutes all questions will have a sufficient sample of ratings to prioritize.

    This writing and rating takes some extra time up front, but arguably gives more value for the whole group, who might otherwise be stuck listening to esoteric or off-topic questions from a few eager hand raisers that are of little interest to others. Forcing questions to be written also avoids having to deal with speechmakers with “More of a comment then a question…” And you can also feel confident that even though you could not answer all the questions (you never really can in a curious group) you at least addressed the most commonly important questions.

    1. Jason, thank you. I like this approach, and the details you give are helpful. I am occasionally asked to present online to college meeting degree courses, and will typically run an AMA sandwiched between small group activities and ask the professor to gather a list of individual questions before the session. The list is then distributed to all the students, and they can ask anything they like during the AMA. Your approach is more comprehensive, and would better serve a larger audience.

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