Many conferences and speakers build in time for audience questions during a talk. How often are those questions actually useful? How often do they take up time everyone would rather spend in other ways? Wouldn’t you rather use that extra time on your message? Or give the time back to the audience for a longer break?
Questions have value. It’s possible that your talk wasn’t clear on some aspect. Perhaps there is some interesting point or related work that you weren’t aware of. And finding out that someone is interested in your topic is always exciting.
How you handle those questions is up to you. As a speaker, you have the option to not take questions even if the conference “builds in time”. What if you got your full time and attendees got to ask questions? The dream can be a reality with these magic words “if you’d like to talk about this, I’d love to chat in the hallway”.
Hallway conversations allow you to keep the content of your chat relevant. It’s also much easier for someone to opt out if they decide the question isn’t interesting to them.
The audience member may be interested in their question. It may even be interesting to you as the speaker. It probably isn’t for the rest of the audience.
The question and its answer take up time that keeps the audience away from lunch. From finding a great seat in the next talk. From having an interesting conversation with someone in the hallway.
By taking the question “offline” in the in-between time during a break, you can have a true conversation with your audience member. An on stage Q&A doesn’t encourage a real back and forth.
The group that joins you after your talk can even start to have conversations about each others’ questions. That would almost never happen in context of the whole room.
It also brings down the stress level for both you and your audience. If you’ve invited people to come and chat with you, they feel more welcome to do so. They don’t have to raise their hands and then yell across a room of 200+ people to get your attention.
When you say “I’d love to chat in the hallway,” the location isn’t specific. You may want to determine a meeting point before your talk where people can find you. “I’ll be just outside this room after I gather my things from the stage” is a good choice. It brings you out of the next speaker’s room should your chat go long.
If you’d like to decompress after the talk before talking more about the topic with folks, feel free to pick a later time as well. “Find me during the break right after lunch outside Hall G” is another example if you’d like to fuel up beforehand. If your adoring fans find you on the way to Hall G, make sure you keep the conversation moving. That way, others can find you at the appointed time.
Remember that right after a talk people will be most excited about what you had to say. The material will be fresh in your mind and the question fresh in theirs. That said, if you’re nearing the end of your talk and realize that you’re pretty drained, that is ok. You can delay questions to a later time.
Certain personality types tend to dominate groups. It’s alright to ask someone who’s monopolizing the time to let others speak up. Better yet, try to bring the quietest person around you into the conversation. Read their name tag and ask “What do you think of that, Caleb?” (It will be me, I’m shy.) You can also invite a friend to be “timekeeper.” They can help you with this by glancing at their watch to make sure no one is talking the whole time. If you want to make the next session, they can help with that as well.
I’m going to keep this in mind if I ever work on another conference. I will build in plenty of breaks where conversations can blossom and grow.
What do you think? What are some of the best questions or Q&A horror stories you’ve had? Have you tried not taking questions on stage? Leave a comment or response below.
Top comments (6)
The last time I gave a talk I spent the rest of the day giving impromptu tutorials on the subject. It was awesome.
BTW I should have found you in the hallway at Codeland!
That's amazing. One-on-one tutorials are great if you have time. Yeah, I saw you a few times but you seemed busy. Come to SPKR!
I signed up for the mailing list 🙂
Feel free to hit me up on DEV Connect if there's any way I can help along the way. (Not to plug our own thing too hard but it's the best way to get a fast response from me 🙃)
How often do you encounter push back on this idea? I feel as if I have, of late, been encountering people in conversations about the matter of Q&A sessions that seem to have this reverence for the Q&A process.
They spend a lot of time telling speakers that they're obligatory and often couch it in a naive thought process where Q&A sessions are just kumbaya-fests where no one judges a speaker for having trouble with a Q and that all Qs are beneficial.
Like, I've been an audience where people get upset with speakers (loudly muttering "F-cking lawyers", for instance) because the speaker didn't quite answer a question correctly due to not quite understanding the nuance of a question or the way it was worded. Even in a small meetup format (~12 people or so) things can get weird with awkwardly pointed or aggressive questioning.
Depends on the conference. I've attended conferences where there were barely time to make from one session to the next if you had to change rooms. Then, if something was not clear during your talk, if there is no Q&A, then there will be no chance for me to catch you in the hallway.
My favorite conference, however, was one that each session of 30 minutes was followed by a 30-minute mingle time where hallway conversations were taking place.
Also, depends on what kind of questions. If a question is to clarify something presented during the talk, then asking that question on the Q&A session is appropriate, as others in the room might also have the same question. However, if I want to see how what you presented can be applied to my situation, then I should catch you in the hallway.
I love this. Will definitely use it 👌🏻