Panels, Q & As etc

John Dodds has done a post – 10 Marketing Lessons From Conferences – with some tips on how to avoid your next conference being boring. Lots of interesting ideas if you as you use them as food for thought rather than absolute truth.

I say this knowing that I can be pretty dogmatic about some meeting formats and I have to concede that a lot depends on context. A format that sucks air with one speaker and audience might work well with a different speaker/listeners.

Having said which, I definitely share John’s view of the practice of taking audience questions in threes and its variations.

8) Disintermediate.

Discussion works best when one person speaks and another responds to them, so don’t invoke the inefficient democratistion of taking groups of questions. The questions will be forgotten and/or unanswered and the whole process requires the unnecessary expansion of a chairman’s role as intermediary. Speakers can hold their own conversations.

Absolutely if you host one of these things, make your life easy by getting out of the way.

I’m not sure about this though:

The audience is there to listen to the speaker not the egocentric ramblings of questioners, so when you open up the conversation, insist that questions are limited to one sentence and start with an interrogative. Maximise the exposure of the speaker, minimise distractions.

Sure, some audience members use Q&A sessions to bore us with their accomplishments or plug their pet projects. But I’m wary of letting the bad eggs determine the rules for the rest of us. If we’ve had the courtesy to listen to a speaker for an extended period, I think it’s rather insulting to be told we have to be brief. And I strongly dislike the notion that our response has to be in the form of a question – I find that a bit patronising and connected to old fashioned notions that the speaker is an expert imparting the truth and Q&A is merely an opportunity for us to learn from him. One of my favourite speakers has a nice piece of shtick where he invites all forms of response – “any questions, doubts, protests, sarcastic remarks, weird fantasies, you’d like to share?”. OK that might invite an audience member to take advantage, but they’d quite likely do that anyway.

And on another level, if we think Q&A is so tricky that it can only run with landlady’s rules, wouldn’t it be better to cut straight to the coffee break so we can all have a nice chat and organise our own conversations? I realise that there is a “pressure to perform” in standard Q&A sessions that often makes people nervous and so longwinded, or encourages us to blurt out exaggerations rather than open up enquiry. For fans of complex systems, I think Q&A tends to squash “weak signal” feedback that works better in more informal conversation.

Of course, you skip the whole powerpoint thing and do an Open Space. But you knew I’d say that, didn’t you?

4 thoughts on “Panels, Q & As etc

  1. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the kind words Johnnie and you’re right, I rarely aspire to absolute truth. The post was more provocative than prescriptive, somewhat allegorical in respect of marketing in general and partially inspired by conversations we’ve had.

    Given your expressed antipathy to Q&As, I was a little surprised to read your observation (your final few paragraphs being much more in line with the views I had thought you held). But I don’t think we’re really in disagreement.

    I would prefer to hear more from the speaker than the questioner simply because I think, on average, the total sum of “enjoyed speaking” in the arena would be maximised because the audience want to hear the speaker, but not all of them may enjoy the opining of an unrestricted questioner. It’s not a question of the speaker being the font of truth, but rather that the speaker is the reason for the majority of people being there.

    Moreover, I should have made clear that my suggested restriction on the questioner would only be on length of question, not on the right to reply and I would hope that informed conversation would more likely result via this route. A quick question format seems to me more likely to create a flow of debate than the hot air fests we have both endured in the past, but I totally agree with you that ultimately a more informal group chat is better.

    As to having the courtesy to endure the speaker for some period of time and thereby earning some karmic right to pontificate back – elsewhere in my list I suggest (a la Interesting and TED) that we also limit how much of the speaker we have to endure. Anyway, we can spend some of that time conjuring up our own one sentence examples of “doubts, protests, sarcastic remarks, weird fantasies” that start with an interrogative.


    Yeh, I think we in semi-violent agreement here! Often I think it’s better to cut QandA out altogether and break to informal convos.

  2. Tina

    couldn’t agree more with the one question at a time comment. Winds me up something wicked when people ramble on introducing their question X 3!! by which time everyones lost the will to live and can’t remember the original questions either. People ask your question….don’t make a statement and facilitator MAKE SURE ALL QUESTIONS ARE ANSWERED one at a time.Jeez this hit a raw nerve.

  3. Roland Harwood

    Nice post Johnnie. I agree Q&A can be frustrating, boring, tedious etc, but I do think it’s worth trying to keep the whole group for a while before breaking out into the 2’s, 3’s and 4’s of post event networking.

    Also, questions on their own can be annoying if the speaker, when asked a pointless question, still feels obliged to say ‘good question’ and give a suitably lengthy response.

    The main problem with Q&A for me is that it tends to jump about too much so there is no flow. If somehow the discussion could be themed, without being too contrived (a la QuestionTime), that would be ideal.

    I’m also starting to think that a backchannel, whilst great for bigger events, can undermine the discussion fairly swiftly to nobodies benefit in a smaller gathering.

  4. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks Roland, and you illustrate the importance of context in influencing what works and doesn’t.

    I would like to suggest we take a leaf out of Tim Berners-Lee’s book, as per the best thing he said at his recent NESTA gig: let’s expect more of humans, rather than less.

    So whatever rules of engagement we set, let’s base them on the assumption that most people are goodwilled and won’t be boring. Put up with the odd lame question. Let the speaker decide for himself whether to respond or not.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.