Whither the Q&A: Is this largely an outdated ritual?

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Past the exhilaration of having performed my “Speechwriting Jam Session” yesterday for 300 staffers at the United Nations headquarters yesterday, I indulged in a little video rant at the gate at LaGuardia.

I don’t really think we should abolish the Q&A. But I’ve long believed that the Q&A is more convention than communication. And I’m starting to think that it’s losing even its dubious merit as a kind of symbolic event.

Until a few years ago, the Q&A was a rare chance in the world for the faces in the crowd to be heard—which is just how they always used it. Which was actually fine, especially when they had a comment that amplified the speech’s message, or courage enough to flat-out state a disagreement with the speaker.

Usually, though, they cleverly (and I believe only semi-consciously) used the forum to state their disappointment at the speaker’s inability to solve their problems. They did so by purposely constructing questions that are impossible to answer: “Thanks for your advice on public speaking. Now: Though speaker I work for has lots of charisma, she has no arms and no legs and no vocal chords. What do you recommend?”

In this way, the questioner managed to say indirectly, “Yeah, you got a nice ovation, and you’re probably going to go have a martini now, aren’t you? Well, not before I let everybody know that you don’t know everything, Mister Smarty.”

And the speaker, who was now going to have two martinis if you must know, played his or her part by smilingly pretending to try to answer and then asking, “Does that answer your question?” while knowing full well it does not.

At least through the last century, speakers and questioners played this game, because we all magnanimously reasoned that 15 minutes of passive-aggressive showmanship was the only voice the little guy had.

But now we live in an age where the little guy can live blog, can tweet, can push record on their video phone and show the world what a smarmy bastard or Pollyanna bitch the speaker really is.

My democratic impulse tells me I shouldn’t question the Q&A. But as we know, some impulses are ignored for everyone’s good.

Is there a better way to deal with the Q&A? I think there is. Tune in next week, as I share my idea. —DM

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