Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

01 May 2014, 10:11 a.m.

Better Q&A Sessions

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

If you were designing an interactive experience where people got to ask an expert questions about what she'd just taught them, what would you aim to achieve? How would you structure it? I imagine you would curate that conversation in some way, and try to maximize the benefit for all the participants, not just those who could come up with a question or comment fastest, or who wanted help with their very specific problem.

MicrofoonRight now, when speakers give talks at tech conferences, we mostly muff this part. Even really good presentations dissolve into poor question-and-answer sessions, where we waste time with nitpicking, rants, homework help, thoughtlessness, and all the predictable outcomes of an untrammeled glibocracy. I myself have been guilty of this.

But we can fix this.

A good Q&A requires work from the audience, the speaker, and the moderator. Yes, you should have a moderator. The speaker's concentrating on answering the questions in front of her; don't try to add time assessment and question flow management to that job as well. As is so often the case,* WisCon has already written up best practices for a moderator, including a script for responding to "This is more of a comment than a question". And yes, you are authorized and have permission to moderate discussions. Everyone else will be grateful.

Mary Robinette Kowal offers seven useful tips for speakers on structuring their talks and Q&A sessions to maximize interest and usefulness. I especially endorse her suggestions on signposting, transitions, planting question-seeds, and answering with specificity.

And the audience - well, that's all of us, including me. I can try to think of good questions, and refrain from asking bad questions.

Some bad questions demean the speaker, perhaps by asking "have you tried this super obvious thing" or, worse, recommending the obvious thing (happened throughout that Q&A); or by implying the speaker stole your code (video). Some bad questions disrespect the audience, by hogging the Q&A time to get an answer only relevant to one person, or by grandstanding.

Good questions and comments are like good fanfic; they delightfully expand the conversation with ideas that initially surprise everyone else, but immediately make sense given our shared context. I might ask for more detail on a speaker's process or future plans, make relevant, nonobvious critiques, or recommend relevant, nonobvious resources. I also sometimes make a note of a question to ask the speaker later, in conversation, or of a link to send her.

A bad Q&A, like conference calls or driving in city traffic, is the opposite of meditation. It sucks the energy out of the room, taking dozens of people's time without returning on that investment. Let's get better.

* WisCon has a member assistance fund, very participatory programming creation and signup, a newsletter that helps attendees prep and see how to volunteer, and amazing universal access, including a Quiet Room and ingredient lists on food. And they run a "how to moderate a panel" metapanel early in the conference to help new mods, and a set of first-timer icebreaker dinners the first night. Basically, if you're running a conference, WisCon has best practices you can learn from.

Thanks to Julie Pagano for a conversation that led to me writing this!


02 May 2014, 10:23 a.m.

Some questions I've liked to ask at conference talks are "what does everyone believe is true about [topic you just presented on] that you wish they knew was wrong?" or "what really surprised you when you started looking into [topic]"?

Often the speaker has already answered these in their talk and you don't need to ask, but when they haven't sometimes you get an interesting epilogue to the speaker's talk. It might be nice to have a go-to list of good questions to ask--for example, your process and future plans questions.

One thing I see in common of these few questions is that they're things the speaker might have chosen to include themselves, making the question-asker like another editor of the talk--"your audience here would like to hear more on this, can you expand on it?"--which is probably not true of the grandstanding questions.