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’m ever working on a conference again. 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? Let me know on Mastodon.