Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Death to Q&A

Here's a simple way to incorporate high-quality audience questions without disrupting your talk or presentation. I wish every panel and presentation did this.

Index cards for audience questions.

See, I hate Question and Answer sessions. I mean, I really HATE them. Whenever an event or a presentation or something wraps up, and the host or the presenter says, "Are there any questions from the audience?" -- that's my cue to make a break for the exit.

I know what's coming, and so do you.

The same five or six questions every presenter gets: How did you get your start doing this thing I totally wish I was doing only I haven't worked up the guts to do it myself? Will you listen to me pitch my idea to you right here in front of all these people, because I don't believe in my idea enough to pursue it myself without your approval? Let me tell you a story that will prove I belong up there with you, and not down here with these other people.

I'd rather pour bleach into both my eyes.

So when I was asked to host a panel at this year's Mesh conference, I knew I had to find a solution. Of course, there ARE great audience questions (man, I had a KILLER question for Jackie Chan when he did a talk at last year's TIFF, but they shut down the mics before I got a turn. Mostly because everyone before me was trying to pitch their ideas to Jackie. Not that I'm bitter), but how could I get those into the discussion without subjecting everyone to the dreaded "open microphone" that kills a presentation stone dead?

A handy trick from the GM's toolkit came to the rescue -- the humble index card.

What I wanted for this panel was a free-flowing, smooth conversation that felt more like a thoughtful salon conversation than a structured panel. I had some questions for the panelists prepared ahead of time, of course, but the last thing I wanted to do was to cut off the conversation in mid-stride, turn to the audience and say, "Okay, now who has some questions?"

So I brandished my index cards at the crowd. Whenever someone wanted to add a question to the discussion, they just caught my eye and I rushed over to give them a card for them to write their question on. When the card was returned, I added it to my stack of questions, and then whenever there was a break in the discussion, I could jump in with a "Here's a question from one of our audience members..."

Often the questions seemed to flow naturally from the ongoing conversation. We never had to interrupt the entire discussion just to surface one person's idea, but anyone who wanted to contribute could.

We got through every single one of the audience questions, and many people commented on how they appreciated the way it was all handled. The questions were (perhaps because people had to really think their question through before handing it in to me) very high-quality -- interesting and taking the conversation in new and thoughtful ways.

I really enjoy hosting panels and facilitating discussions, and this one went really well. And I'll be using my index cards at every one I do from now on.