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.
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?