Speakers’ “office hours,” and other alternatives to the clunky Q&A

So in a post last week I called for the end of the traditional post-speech Q&A. The conversation that ensued on various forums helped me clarify my view.

Here’s what I now think about the Q&A: It usually sucks, and in most cases it ought to be modified or abandoned and replaced with more sensible means of interaction.

(And interaction we want! But meaningful interaction.)

Here are three alternatives, in ascending order of novelty:

Filter the questions. Radio talk show hosts don’t take every nitwit question that comes over the phone; they have a producer who asks callers what they have in mind, and patches through those who will best advance the discussion. Similarly: Via Twitter or low-tech means, conference organizers should gather audiences’ questions in advance if possible, and call on people whose questions are provocative. Start with some tough ones, so the audience sees the questions aren’t chosen for ease of answering, but rather for broad appeal and intelligent content.

Have the speaker lead a small-group discussion afterward, just for people who want to engage the speaker. Everybody gets his or her turn to ask a question, and the whole group chews it over. (Not just the speaker.) First-come-first-served sign-up, twelve people maximum.

Have the speaker hold “office hours” after the talk. Skip the Q&A (or, as speaking juggernaut Steve Crescenzo does, “pack so much information in that nobody misses the Q&A (I hope) and then encourage people to reach out to me afterwards, via e-mail or at the event itself, with questions.” I’d go one further: I’d try to get the speaker to allocate an hour or two immediately after the speech to spend one-on-one time, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes each, with people who have qualified themselves by signing up ahead of time, first-come, first-served. Will there be one yahoo in every five? Probably. But “office hours” participants will have qualified themselves by having the confidence to converse with the important speaker, and so other four discussions are likely to be meaningful for both both speaker and attendee. Will some speakers blanch at the extra work and time? Yes, and you don’t have to make it a requirement.

You can just say what we should always say about two-way communication: The audience rightly expects to be able to engage with the speakers, and interacting with the audience is a great potential benefit for the speaker, too. That’s why we want to make the interaction as rewarding as possible.

Give the speaker two or three options that the conference staff can execute, and then let the speaker make the call.

So I guess I’m not calling for banning the Q&A after all—but I’d like to see us be more thoughtful about how the audience interaction happens. And if we are more thoughtful, I think we’ll see the Q&A take its rightful place not as a required ritual but as one of a number of alternative means’ to connect the speaker and the audience.

Who has other ideas?

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