Johnnie Moore

The futility of Q and A

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I’m not saying it’s always a bad idea. But it usually is.

I mean the conventional thing we seem to do after listening to presentations: the audience is invited to take part in a question-and-answer session. We’re all so used to it it seems to go unquestioned (ironic, eh?).

Sure, like any ritual we can perform it may sometimes satisfy people but I can’t remember the last time that happened for me.

Here’s my beef. The presentation itself sets up a status game in which the speaker and chairperson start and usually stay high and the audience is low. Here are the various ways this gets manifested. For starters, the speakers are usually at the front of the room and often on a raised platform. Before a word is said, they’re already in high status. Then the chairperson offers a flattering introduction; if we’re lucky they merely flatter the speaker but a lot of them have found ways to flatter themselves by implication. The speaker gets a microphone and the licence to talk pretty much unconstrained. If there’s a time limit, it’s rarely enforced.

They get to use pictures too (of course that can be a great way to illustrate a point, but again it’s all a raising of status). Usually their chairs are smarter or more comfortable than the ones we sit in, and they probably are able to move around if they wish – while we have to sit still, squished in between other audience members. The speaker is in the light, and we are usually in the shadows.

I can live with all that for a while, if the speaker is good and the content works (and how often does that happen?). But note that by the time the speaker finishes, we in the audience are in a very low status place. The speaker’s brain and body have had plenty of exercise and freedom; our brains and bodies have been used only to heat the already stuffy room.

But although we’ve been forced to play low status, quite of a lot of us, consciously or not, are getting fed up by now and want to raise it. And the feeble Q&A format provides the only way to do so (other than leaving the room which becomes an attractive option, were we not all so bunched in).

But Q and A is set up to preserve, not relieve, the status game. Here’s how it continues: the speaker has a lapel mike, we either don’t get one or have to wait to be given one as a reward for raising our hands like schoolchildren. We’re only supposed to ask a question: again, inviting us to stay in low status, rather than say, being able to protest or make a point.

So what happens? The frustrated lizard brains of those lucky enough to get to ask a question make us leak out aggression, sarcasm or self-importance. Half the time whoever gets the mike rambles on because they’re giddy with pent up frustration; they’re only doing what most of us want to do i.e. get to talk and not just listen.

So the questions become tiresome. And in a very human way, the hosts often then do more of what is already not working. They add more constraints to the Q and A to lower our status even further. They batch questions in threes (and then often manage to forget one of them) and they badger us to come to the point or mock us for not framing our input as a question.

Far from being the way to improve meetings, Q and A is often worse than the dullest presentation. It’s a bit like tinkering with the lid of the radiator on your car when it’s still hot.

It’s a wretched format, and Harold Jarche offers some excellent related criticism of these hierarchical conversations. I like what he says about how twitter offers at least some partial relief to the madness.

I don’t have a magic solution for this. If you’re running an event you can stay in denial about the shortcomings of the format or you can take some risks, starting with abandoning Q and A and then trying something else.

Here are some options but if you don’t like them, please invent something else; it is unlikely to be worse than Q and A. Option one is the simplest: end sooner and have longer refreshment coffee breaks. The energy level of these is usually massive compared to the auditorium; everyone gets to exercise their brain in groups that self-organise; and those with real questions for the speaker can buttonhole them personally.

Or you could do some hybrid of open space, taking a few suggestions for themes for break out conversations and let people do small groups.

Or you could just set up smaller group discussions some other way though if you end up giving instructions to people on how many or who to talk to you risk annoying them further.

Another thing I’ve tried, when the audience is not too huge, is to pass a microphone around and invite everyone to speak a sentence or two about what has surprised, puzzled or excited them about what they’ve heard. It’s far from perfect, but it is at least a gesture towards allowing everyone to express themselves.

And if your audience is tech literate, I’m increasingly inclined to put a twitterstream up on stage.

As I say, none of these solutions is perfect but I think almost anything is better than Q and A.

And if you hate my argument, please don’t get me started on panel sessions.

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