Audience questions are a resource that can have a huge, positive impact on an event. But the Q & A session at the end of the discussion is one of the weakest ways to use them. There’s a much better alternative.
Here are the problems with Q & A sessions — no doubt you already know them:
- The questioners are self-selected, and the basis for selection usually is not how good a question is, but how much the person wants to speak in front of the group. This cuts two ways, both bad: Someone with a great question but no interest in singling themselves out will stay silent. Someone else who wants the attention will use any question as an excuse to talk at length.
- You risk a painful silence as you open the floor to questions if no one in your audience is engaged — or extroverted — enough to ask questions.
- If you’re lucky enough to get good, pointed questions from the audience, it can reflect a failure of the main discussion to address what’s really on people’s minds. This isn’t always true — in the best case scenario, thoughtful questions spring from an engagement in the main discussion, not exasperation with it. But why wait until your event is almost over to find out what people really wanted to know?
On top of this, the Q & A at the end does nothing to help maintain interest throughout the discussion.
Here’s an alternative that takes advantage of all that’s great about audience questions, without any of the downsides of the usual Q & A session: Make submitting a question the price (or part of the price) of admission. Review the questions and pull out the best. Then structure your discussion around them, so that at several points during the event you announce the name of a questioner, remind them of the topic of their question, then let the person ask it. The audience questions can serve as a couple chapter breaks or as the primary basis of the discussion, depending on what you get and how you want to use it.
Using the questions in this way:
- Lets you see, before the event, what your particular audience really cares about.
- Forces those with good questions, but minimal desire for attention, to share their thoughts, giving you a bigger and better pool of questions from which to choose the best.
- Integrates audience participation throughout the event while maintaining the control needed to keep things on track.
- Uses a little suspense to help keep the audience plugged in. I’d recommend not informing the people whose questions were selected before the event. Audience members should understand that at any point, any one of them could be asked to stand and share his or her question. (Don’t worry about no-shows. Just be firm about calling the name twice, waiting two beats, then reading the question yourself.)
- For free events, creates a (small) cost in time & thought beforehand, increasing a sense of commitment to attending the event.
A word on mechanics: If you already have a registration form, add a required text field for a question. If it is a free event and no registration is required (or registration is over), it’s very easy to create a form using Google Docs that you can link to or embed on your website, or email to your registrants. All responses will appear in a nice neat spreadsheet.