Angie McKeown

              I'm only me, but I'm very good at it

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5 ways to ruin a good Q&A

Whether it’s a packed conference amphitheatre or a tiny code meetup, most of us have experienced Q&A questions where we just thought, “Why are you even saying that mate?”. Here are 5 question types I think we could do without.

Key takeaways:

  1. Knowledge and insight should flow from the speaker(s) during Q&A, not from the audience.
  2. Don’t be a dick.

1. Poke A Hole In It

The nerd-gasm of tech conferences and code-meetups everywhere. Code-bros almost can’t help themselves; they’re problem solvers and unit testers by nature. Take the risk of too many years being treated like genius ninjas who don’t need to be well-socialised or tactful and then hand them the mic, and you get “Well thanks for telling us about your whole thesis Bob, but why didn’t you just use this esoteric tool which was designed to do the job easily and simply without all that bother?” and “Why have you not accounted for this edge case which breaks everything in the early stage concept design?”

Sit down buddy. You _might_ be right, but you’re being really rude in a completely unneccesary fashion. If you _need_ to bring this up do it in-person later, not in front of a room full of people. Nobody deserves that kinda takedown unless they kicked your dog or something, okay?

2. Off Topic Rant

“I came here with an agenda, and I’m going to ignore the entire presentation/panel discussion and previous comments to talk about the thing I came to talk about, and everyone must listen to me proselytise.”

Bad enough when it’s one single panel member taking all the talk time, but when you are just some randomer from the audience you are just monopolising time that doesn’t belong only to you.

People come to listen because of the advertised topic, just be polite and talk only in and around that topic, it’s not hard. You can talk about other stuff in the breakout area/bar/lobby/Twitter. Do you have a really awesome thing to say though? Great! Suggest to some local organisers that you might like to do a talk, or start your own podcast, or blog. There are lots of really great ways to get your opinions out there.

3. Lengthy agreement/disagreement

It’s great if you agree with the presenter/discussion! No need to tell the audience at length about it.

If you also worked in aerospace face-gels, or high-impact knitting, or underwater wordsmithing, and in fact even if you are more experienced than the speaker, it’s still rude if you get up and basically go over all of their work. If you feel you have something lengthy to contribute then you should approach the conference as a speaker for next time, not mark someone’s work in front of a room full of people.

Nobody in ANY audience is interested in hearing someone else agree at length with what’s just been said in any panel or presentation – BORING! The panel/presenter was chosen for their expertise, they don’t need your validation! A polite ‘this really resonated with me’, or ‘I completely agree’ before your actual question is just perfect.

Conversely, if you have a lengthy disagreement you should say so, but perhaps summarise and suggest talking about it later or by email, as monopolising the entire Q&A time for just yourself would be terrifically arrogant.

4. Self-Aggrandisement

Have you done a super, duper thing somewhat related to the topic? Wow, really? Do you think we need to hear all about it?

Sometimes if phrased well this can be nicely validating for the speaker  – “I heard you speak about this last year and went away and used your technique and grew my sales by 50%, so thank you, it really works folks!” is great.

“I’ve had 2 successful startups and been a brand manager for Sachs and Reebok and everything said here is true, and I’ve found that…” is not so helpful to the audience. Using the topic as a platform just to boast about yourself is a dick move.

This is especially a problem at “women’s” events. Chaps, it’s stellar that you are progressive and have 60 per cent women in your company and do all the good things to make them feel welcome. We don’t need to hear you boast about it. There are no prizes, you don’t get a special sticker. Sorry.

And now anyone who wanted to hear more about the specific expertise of the acutal speaker or panel has missed out because they were forced to listen to how great you allegedly are. Joy.

5. Not-Even-A-Question

Often a presentation or panel discussion sparks your thoughts about a subject and you want to make a point of your own. Excellent! Sparking new thinking and ideas is usually why we’re all doing this stuff.

So this one can sometimes be okay, BUT only if you don’t start being preachy. My suggestion is Stand up, Make your point succinctly, Ask the presenter/panel what they think. This stays truer to the spirit of the Q&A.

So what can we do about it?

Whether it’s off-topic, self-aggrandisement, or just downright poking holes in the presentation, there’s definitely a way to be rude and waste everyone’s time the in Q&A session. It does it keep happening though, so apart from asking people to think about their behaviour, how can we stop it?

Well there are three routes I can see.

  1. The first is not one I favour, but some conferences with more PR sensitive guests control the questions by handing out pre-approved questions to specific audience members beforehand. This controls for quality, ensures there is no awkwad phase where nobody has any questions, and tries to ensure nothing offends their expensive speaker.
  2. The second is to ensure that the first couple of questions go to people you know will ask something intelligent, engaged and socially tactful. That way even if something difficult comes later, your speaker will not be dealing with something deflating and awful right out of the gate. It’s much easier to deal with trickier questions once the first couple have been affirming and you’re feeling okay.
  3. The third option is to use audience engagement software to allow people to send their questions in either live or before the event, and then upvote the questions the audience would most like asked. This means you can ask the most appropriate ones, and eliminate those that the audience will find least useful, or that do not illuminate the issues or utilise the expertise of the speaker(s).

At the end of the day you invite (and pay good money) to have great speakers at your conferences and events in order to gain knowledge and insight from them. The Q&A should continue this process for the audience, filling in gaps and giving further details into the speaker or their product or experience. Q&A which is over-taken by inappropriately behaved audience members makes it a poorer experience for everyone involved and robs everyone of something. Let’s put an end to it.

I’ve organised events, spoken at events, attended events, and listened to other people’s horror stories from events, but I bet you have some stories of your own…

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