The times of austere conferences where the audience was hushed into devout silence are mostly over – for many good reasons! However, inviting your audience to ask questions brings forward its own set of challenges: You have probably never felt as lonely on stage as when you stand silently waiting with all eyes on you and no questions to answer. In this post, we present 10 tips of how to survive this particularly challenging moment of your event.
With the dawn of the digital age, social media have greatly accustomed us to speaking our minds: We have gotten used to expressing our opinions in public spaces online – as long as we can safely hide behind our screens. But in actual public spaces, shyness takes over. As a consequence, it can be quite challenging to animate a Q&A session during your conference or seminar. Fortunately, there are a few tricks to get the ball rolling.
Prepare your Q&A session well
Tip no. 1: Know your target audience
Not everybody will be interested in the topics you talk about. However, only those that feel personally concerned by your talk will ask questions. Therefore, it cannot be repeated too often: Carefully choosing your audience in advance is the key to a successful event.
Tip no. 2: Make questions easy
From a practical point of view, asking questions needs to be easy: Make sure that your venue is equipped with several microphones and, if possible, recruit assistants to pass them out to members of the audience who signal a question.
Tip no. 3: Prepare questions in advance
Getting started is the hardest part. Before the Q&A session, your audience is an anonymous mass that the individual participants blend in with. So, whoever asks the first question is isolating him- or herself from the comforting group. The risk associated with singling yourself out makes the first question a major hurdle.
To avoid that a heavy silence takes hold of the room, prepare one or two questions in advance that your accomplices can ask in case nobody else dares to speak up. That way you break the ice and encourage the audience to ask the first “real” question.
Let your talk inspire questions
Tip no. 4: Don’t provide all the information at once
Ask your speakers to draw attention to what is essential without going into all the details. Points that have not been mentioned will surely inspire questions. Highly skilled speakers are able to leave out pieces of information all while suggesting their presence to create more curiosity.
Tip no. 5: Favor short talks
Your audience obviously needs to be awake to ask questions. Don’t allow endless tirades. Instead, work with your speakers to make sure that their talks don’t last longer than 20 minutes (see Darling, I Had to Cut Down Your Presentation). Once you reach the Q&A session, your audience is still feeling fresh enough to come up with a question or two.
Focus on interactivity
Tip no. 6: Inspire a mindset of participation throughout the entire event
The audience is a lot more likely to ask questions if they have been active participants all throughout the event rather than passive listeners. As the moderator or speaker, you can for example: Involve your audience with a quick poll by show of hands. Let your audience vote or fill out short surveys using adapted applications. Encourage participation with gamified activities such as a clapometer, a wordle, etc. All of these activities constitute a warm-up for your participants that will help them feel more comfortable asking questions later on.
Tip no. 7: Get help from internet users
If your event is live broadcasted on the web, invite your online attendees to ask questions via social media or a dedicated platform. By inviting them to the table, you are likely to receive questions more readily because your online participants are probably not feeling as shy as your physically present audience.
Tip no. 8: Bypass shyness by inviting your audience to ask questions in writing
Building onto the previous tip, let your audience post messages and questions directly during the event. The opportunity to live-tweet all throughout the day creates a collection of questions that your speakers can then address during the Q&A session.
Knowing how to respond to questions
Tip no. 9: Motivate your audience by thoroughly answering questions
The first individual to ask a question shows a considerable amount of courage: Reward the asker by providing a well thought-through answer. Begin by making sure that you have correctly understood the question and rephrase or ask for precisions if necessary. Then respond with rich explanations and clear arguments. Finally, ask your participant if you have answered the question to his or her satisfaction. By doing so, you prove to the rest of the audience that asking is worthwhile.
Tip no. 10: Ally with those who ask questions
As a moderator, it is your role to make sure that the audience gets the answers it is asking for. If you notice that a speaker is trying to avoid a question or responds with incomprehensible jargon, step in with determination and a pinch of humor. Once again you prove that the Q&A session is not a disguised break or an excuse to kill time but well worth its slot on the agenda. As a consequence, you encourage the rest of the audience to voice their questions as well.