The futility of Q and A

I’m not saying it’s always a bad idea. But it usually is.

I mean the conventional thing we seem to do after listening to presentations: the audience is invited to take part in a question-and-answer session. We’re all so used to it it seems to go unquestioned (ironic, eh?).

Sure, like any ritual we can perform it may sometimes satisfy people but I can’t remember the last time that happened for me.

Here’s my beef. The presentation itself sets up a status game in which the speaker and chairperson start and usually stay high and the audience is low. Here are the various ways this gets manifested. For starters, the speakers are usually at the front of the room and often on a raised platform. Before a word is said, they’re already in high status. Then the chairperson offers a flattering introduction; if we’re lucky they merely flatter the speaker but a lot of them have found ways to flatter themselves by implication. The speaker gets a microphone and the licence to talk pretty much unconstrained. If there’s a time limit, it’s rarely enforced.

They get to use pictures too (of course that can be a great way to illustrate a point, but again it’s all a raising of status). Usually their chairs are smarter or more comfortable than the ones we sit in, and they probably are able to move around if they wish – while we have to sit still, squished in between other audience members. The speaker is in the light, and we are usually in the shadows.

I can live with all that for a while, if the speaker is good and the content works (and how often does that happen?). But note that by the time the speaker finishes, we in the audience are in a very low status place. The speaker’s brain and body have had plenty of exercise and freedom; our brains and bodies have been used only to heat the already stuffy room.

But although we’ve been forced to play low status, quite of a lot of us, consciously or not, are getting fed up by now and want to raise it. And the feeble Q&A format provides the only way to do so (other than leaving the room which becomes an attractive option, were we not all so bunched in).

But Q and A is set up to preserve, not relieve, the status game. Here’s how it continues: the speaker has a lapel mike, we either don’t get one or have to wait to be given one as a reward for raising our hands like schoolchildren. We’re only supposed to ask a question: again, inviting us to stay in low status, rather than say, being able to protest or make a point.

So what happens? The frustrated lizard brains of those lucky enough to get to ask a question make us leak out aggression, sarcasm or self-importance. Half the time whoever gets the mike rambles on because they’re giddy with pent up frustration; they’re only doing what most of us want to do i.e. get to talk and not just listen.

So the questions become tiresome. And in a very human way, the hosts often then do more of what is already not working. They add more constraints to the Q and A to lower our status even further. They batch questions in threes (and then often manage to forget one of them) and they badger us to come to the point or mock us for not framing our input as a question.

Far from being the way to improve meetings, Q and A is often worse than the dullest presentation. It’s a bit like tinkering with the lid of the radiator on your car when it’s still hot.

It’s a wretched format, and Harold Jarche offers some excellent related criticism of these hierarchical conversations. I like what he says about how twitter offers at least some partial relief to the madness.

I don’t have a magic solution for this. If you’re running an event you can stay in denial about the shortcomings of the format or you can take some risks, starting with abandoning Q and A and then trying something else.

Here are some options but if you don’t like them, please invent something else; it is unlikely to be worse than Q and A. Option one is the simplest: end sooner and have longer refreshment coffee breaks. The energy level of these is usually massive compared to the auditorium; everyone gets to exercise their brain in groups that self-organise; and those with real questions for the speaker can buttonhole them personally.

Or you could do some hybrid of open space, taking a few suggestions for themes for break out conversations and let people do small groups.

Or you could just set up smaller group discussions some other way though if you end up giving instructions to people on how many or who to talk to you risk annoying them further.

Another thing I’ve tried, when the audience is not too huge, is to pass a microphone around and invite everyone to speak a sentence or two about what has surprised, puzzled or excited them about what they’ve heard. It’s far from perfect, but it is at least a gesture towards allowing everyone to express themselves.

And if your audience is tech literate, I’m increasingly inclined to put a twitterstream up on stage.

As I say, none of these solutions is perfect but I think almost anything is better than Q and A.

And if you hate my argument, please don’t get me started on panel sessions.

9 thoughts on “The futility of Q and A

  1. Harold Jarche

    Shorter presentations, longer breaks, areas for discussion, areas for contemplation and social moderators (community managers) who act as hosts to make introductions & connections – just some of the ways to change the conference format. Getting rid of those awful round banquet tables would be another great idea, IMO.

  2. Robert Paterson

    My son James was hosting a workshop the other day – his day long “lesson” had been well prepared. But after 20 minutes he was bored ands sure that the class was too.

    So he stopped. Apologized for being dull – asked them for 10 minutes and left the room to clear his head.

    He returned and asked them what they would like to talk about – magic!

    I know he is my son and I am proud but this seems to capture the power issues that you talk about J – James had to humble himself to connect

  3. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the comments. Excellent suggestions, Harold and I would be happy to join you in a bonfire of banquet tables. I don’t even like them for eating! And kudos to James for being willing to stop doing something that doesn’t work to clear space to think of something better!

  4. Simon Bostock

    Q & A sucks, totally and absolutely. And sometimes Q & A sucks the worst with the best speakers.

    The worst speakers – well, the sooner they’re killed off the better. My particular beef is with the ‘this is what my company does but I’m not going to advertise them but hang on I suddenly can’t stop myself and here’s a film we made about our work’.

    But the best ones usually have managed to create their own little world. I can’t put it any better than George Siemens does about Dave Snowden, who I’m fairly sure I could listen to all day:

    “Dave’s ability to bring a broad knowledge base to bear on knowledge, complexity, and organizations change (with an air of knowingness) results in many nodding heads as he speaks and very little debate when he is done. Essentially, his mode of dialogue creates an integrated cognitive structure (i.e. power base) that is largely unassailable without attempting to interrogate and dismantle each element that he has already connected.”

    Good speakers are often expert in being themselves, and the Q & A is basically no more than ‘an audience with’-type rubbish. And we all run the risk of becoming Piers Morgan or some other witless tame interviewer.

    Planning my last presentation, I thought about this a lot. I was aware acutely aware of me being a ‘man the barricades and burn down the sage on the stage’ type person being the sage on the stage (and I’m also aware how much I enjoy the role. . .) So I made sure not to ‘end’ the presentation with a pithy conclusion but to try to segue into conversation; I tried to facilitate and stay out of the ensuing debate as much as possible.

    It worked, for a bit. But then, interestingly, the ‘real’ facilitator/host/MC person stepped in to reassert my position and thank me and do all the usual nonsense.

  5. Johnnie Moore

    You must have been secretly observing some of the conferences I’ve attended recently Johnnie 😉

    Agree with all of that, and so often the quality of the host / facilitator is a key element too. Whatever the pre-set timetable and the quality of the individual speakers, being able to intervene in real time and steer, involve, etc is often crucial.

    BTW what specifically is the beef with round banquet tables ? I’m curious.


    Thanks for the comments Simon/Ian. My beef with banquet tables: 1)They use a lot of space, cramping the room and making it hard for folks to move around and reorganise to meet others. 2) They are terrible for conversations, you often strain to hear people on the other other side of the table even though they’re looking at you. 3) Most of all, hiding people’s bodies effectively reduces the feeling of openness and I think encourages heady conversations.

  6. Ian Glendinning

    Thanks Johnnie,

    Interesting reasoning, which I’d agree with on the banquet tables, but I guess it’s a matter of which extreme you approach it from.

    Compared to large conferences with many long continuous rows of rectangular tables, or the fixed lecture-theatre seating at some, I like the banquet table layout precisely because of the flexibility to move and interact with the room openly, even to move the chairs as well. The tables become a home-base for any kit you have with you, but you and the chairs can move.

    I guess it’s down to how dense the space is used, and again how much the facilitator encourages the flexibility.

    No tables or fixed chairs is one step further, I can see that.


  7. Earl Mardle

    I had to laugh.

    I’ve spent part of the last few days preparing a presentation for a conference next month, no doubt followed by Q&A and ending the day chairing a panel.

    Now, the question is whether I can make it INTERESTING.

    I usually counsel conference presenters to at least be outrageous, to say something that nobody is expecting, and now I think I’ll add the “anyway that’s what I think, what do you think?” idea rather than the Q&A.

    But I’m still floundering on the panel subversion. Ideas?

    Thanks for the prod Johnnie.

  8. Johnnie Moore

    Hi again Ian: Basically, the fewer and smaller the tables the better is my rule of thumb. It’s amazing how big tables act as attractors for a particular kind of conversation; not always bad, but often unspontaneous and rigidly managerial.

    Heh, Earl, I warned about getting me started! Personally I think the panel format sucks more than almost anything on the planet. It’s almost irredeemable but yes, shoot for controversy as it may be the only thing that can energise it.

    I have tried balancing the status with the audience but getting them to form mini-panels of their own and talk about the same issues as the panel. Kinda works, at least at letting more people talk and be heard at least by some others.

    Also, avoid pompous introductions like the plague. Maybe start the panel with an emotional question like “What most pisses you off about this issue?” or “What’s the most shameful error you’ve made in this area?”.

  9. Eva Schiffer

    Thanks a lot, you made me think and smile… And I remember one experience when I worked in Ghana and prepared a presentation with my young Ghanaian assistant about his research findings. I proposed that he should end the presentation with three open questions. But, and I only realize this now, I think I was thinking of “stay on your high horse” kind of open research questions which we would answer when we got the next grant. But he did the perfect thing: He humbly asked if they could help us with some of the things that we really didn’t understand, told them what we were most confused about and invited them to contribute. That completely changed the atmosphere in the room from “Waiting to tear apart our not too perfect research” to “helpfully contributing their experience and knowledge”. We actually really learned a lot of new things. But I also must admit that I have never done that again and that I feel much safer in the position of saying :I’m this clever person who knows it all and my mike is better than yours 🙂


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