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Tips for effective Q&A
It’s the end of an era for a stalwart of BBC programming. It was announced last night that after 25 years in the chair, David Dimbleby is leaving Question Time.
Whilst Dimbleby has been described as a “titan” of broadcasting, and Twitter is awash with suggestions as to who should replace him, many are asking whether the format itself is redundant, whether the entire show should be put out to pasture.
It got me thinking about an issue in the events industry, and the one that I often face as a content director when designing and formatting an event – the Q&A.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that one of the most common statements about Q&A during the event development process is “don’t let it go on too long”. Most of us can sympathise with this statement to a certain degree. We’ve all been in Q&A sessions that seem to go on forever, become a personal platform for one member of the audience, or just don’t seem to add much to the conversation.
Personally, I believe that there is immense value in a structured, thoughtful question and answer session. In many cases it is the only moment during an event where the audience get a right of reply, and a chance to feel as if their voice is being heard.
Formulated from listening to many Q&A sessions, both good and bad, here are my five tips for ensuring that Q&A adds value to your event:
Have a moderator
There is a reason that Dimbleby has been at the helm of Question Time for 25 years; he is very good at keeping the action moving. He even had to evict a member of the audience who kept interrupting the panel last year. A skilled moderator, who can facilitate a meaningful debate and limit the contributions of individuals, both in the audience and onstage, so that everybody can have a chance to be heard is worth their weight in gold.
The panel members on Question Time are not given access to the questions before, but most of them, you would imagine, take an educated guess about what they may be asked. All speakers can gain this advantage heading into a Q&A session. A little bit of homework before the event will pay dividends when you are able to give an informed and complete answer to a question, reducing the risk of being blindsided by an issue you’ve not thought about.
Allocate a meaningful amount of time
Psychologically, it is damaging to an audience member to hear the words “we’ve only got time for one more” when there is a forest of hands up around the room. Don’t scrimp on time. You can always have an extended lunch if no questions are forthcoming, but in my experience (and with the work of an effective facilitator) there are always questions out there.
Give yourself some thinking time
One of the dangers of a Q&A for a senior leader is that you will be caught unawares by a question, saying something that you may later be held to account for. I believe this is the biggest reason that Q&As are feared by speakers. Give yourself some time after a question to formulate your answer in your head before you open your mouth. A few seconds of silence can feel like a lifetime onstage, but most audience members appreciate an answer that is thought through, and most-likely enjoy asking a question that merits some thinking time.
If you aren’t sure how to answer a question, be honest about it rather than making one up. Promise that you will get back to the asker via email if it’s a specific question, or that it will be shared on a wider level if it merits it. Remember that audience members are humans, and we’re very good at knowing when we’re being fobbed off with a substandard answer. Don’t be tempted to do it, honesty is the best policy.
With the right structure in place, Q&A can be the most useful part of an event, giving audiences a chance to be heard, and speakers valuable insight into what matters most to their people. A rushed Q&A that seems like a hassle can be the opposite, damaging the relationship between audience and speaker.
Let us know your thoughts on Q&A sessions. Useful insight, or a waste of time?