Despite the infamous awkward silence that follows “Are there any questions?” Q&A sessions have the potential to be the best learning moments at conferences.
When delivered well, questions and answers can close the gap between the content the speaker has prepared and what the audience wants to hear.
To help you make your Q&A session worthwhile and engaging, we compiled 15 easy-to-implement tips that you can use at your next one – from planning to facilitation to using interaction technology.
Include more time for questions in the speaker’s slot
Let’s be honest: a few minutes at the end of the presentation for one or two questions from a moderator doesn’t count as a Q&A session.
If you want to host a meaningful discussion between the delegates and the speaker, you need to dedicate more time to it. A good rule of thumb, if circumstances allow, is to allocate about one-quarter of the presentation slot to the Q&A.
For example, if you plan for a 40-minute session, give the speaker 30 minutes for the presentation and leave 10 minutes for the Q&A.
Brief your speakers before the event
Many planners underestimate the importance of proper briefing. They forget that a 40-minute slot on the agenda doesn’t equal 40 minutes of a speaker’s presentation. You need to account for introduction and questions as well.
When briefing your speakers, give them clear instructions, e.g., “You’ll have 30 mins for the talk and the remaining 10 mins will be dedicated to the Q&A.” Be sure to set the timing accordingly in your run of show and on the confidence monitors.
Put a separate block of Q&A after a few presenters
As an alternative to traditional speech + Q&A format, you can also host a joint Q&A session after a block of speakers. Take inspiration from London’s leading product conference JAM.
JAM hosts a 20-minute Q&A after two presenters speak on a similar topic, facilitated by a moderator. This creates enough space for interaction and answering more audience questions.
Replace keynotes completely with the Q&A formats
Not all experts are skilled public speakers. The need to prepare a presentation might even put off some speakers from attending your conference.
To overcome both shortcomings, swap keynotes for more conversation-friendly formats like fireside chats or panel discussions. They put less pressure on the speaker and create more opportunities for incorporating audience questions into the talk.
Create a separate stage for AMA only
Another approach to allow for more conversations during your event is devoting one stage for Q&A sessions. The largest independent startup community, Startup Grind, implements this format with great success.
Since Startup Grind’s packed agenda doesn’t allow for long Q&As on the main stage, it sets up a separate Q+A Popup stage with 30-minute slots for questions and answers per speaker. That way, the speakers can dive deeper into their topics and the audience can take away the priceless insights it came for.
Let the moderator ask the first question
When you open the floor for questions, the audience is still in the listening mode, processing the talk. As the delegates are put on the spot, they may end up sitting silent rather than risk asking a silly question.
As a seasoned moderator, Jan-Jaap in der Maur, put it: “The speaker was allowed weeks or even months to prepare, so why should the attendee have to deliver questions in 10 seconds?”
To give attendees more time to come up with questions, have your moderator ask the first couple of questions. They should be relatively familiar to the speakers so they can start the Q&A on a strong note. Alternatively, you can agree on the opening questions before the talk.
Have the moderator walk among the audience
It’s great when your moderator can work directly with your audience. Ask him or her to encourage people to ask questions and walk toward the participants with a mic. The interaction will be more natural and informal than waiting for people’s questions and reactions on stage.
In a larger crowd, walking among the audience is even more important. Make sure that the moderator reaches even the very last rows. This way, he or she can ensure that the participants in the back are also included.
Repeat the question asked by the audience member
Sometimes, the question can be incomprehensible or disguised as a comment. Before letting the speakers react, rephrase it for both them and the audience to make sure everyone understands the question.
Let people brainstorm the questions together
If your event design allows it, consider a more creative approach to facilitating the Q&A. Ask people to collaborate and think of a good question in pairs or groups.
Have them submit questions via Q&A app and combine it with personal facilitation. Let the moderator walk around the room and bring up some of the questions and reflections he or she hears.
Apart from raising more relevant questions, it’ll help people formulate their thoughts and exchange them with others.
Change the way you ask for questions
How you ask for questions matters. Try replacing “Do you have any questions?” with an open-ended variant “What questions do you have?” like this math teacher did. Even a little change in wording can make a huge difference.
Two years ago, I was saying “do you have any questions?”. Last year I switched to “what questions do you have?” It made a difference. Today I tried “ask me two questions”. And they did! And those ?s led to more ?s. It amazes me that the littlest things have such a big impact!
— Andre Sasser (@MrsSasser) August 27, 2018
Alternatively, if you don’t want the Q&A to get off track, you can steer the debate by inviting only topic-related questions, e.g., “What questions do you have about the SEO practices?”
Introduce the tool at the start
Using Q&A platforms is a great way to crowdsource the most interesting questions from the audience. But as with everything, new things take some time to adopt.
As a part of your welcome remarks, let your audience know that you’ll be using an event tech and explain how it works. Ideally, you can go through the instructions with the attendees to make sure they are able to join in.
Get the Q&A started with pre-seeded questions
Even if you implement a Q&A tool, people still need a nudge to post their questions. To get the conversation going, prepare a few questions yourself and post them during the speakers’ talk. Seeing other questions will motivate participants to join the Q&A and submit their own questions.
Let the audience decide which questions should be asked
Many Q&A tools including Slido enable participants to upvote the questions. It helps you find out which topics resonate with your audience, and which questions they want the speaker to address.
Therefore, remind people throughout the event to vote for the questions they like the most, especially when the Q&A session is coming to an end and there’s not enough time to go through all of them.
Always ask two or three of the top voted questions
To show participants that you care about the questions they submitted, it’s important to address at least a few of them. If ignored, people might refrain from posting any questions later.
If you don’t have time to answer any, always comment on the situation and say thanks so that your participants’ effort doesn’t go unnoticed.
Share the unanswered questions post-event
Once the Q&A turns into a lively discussion, you might end up with far more questions than you’re able to handle. But that’s nothing to be afraid of.
Many speakers welcome the chance to answer audience questions after their talk, as it gives them an opportunity to create valuable post-event content and continue the conversations from the event. Make sure to send the presenters the list of remaining questions from their talk if they request it.
A great Q&A session is usually a combination of thoughtful preparation, masterful moderation and skillful use of interaction technology. And, naturally, an intelligent and curious audience population. Use the tips above to make your next Q&A a success.
Improve your conference Q&A with Slido