Kill the Q&A?

We tend to talk about Q&As as a quick-and-easy way to add interaction to a session, but after a few days of sitting in sessions with Q&A cabooses last week, I felt weirdly unsettled by them. Q&As tend to skew toward extroverts, since introverts are unlikely to feel comfortable piping up in front of a hundred people. Some have tried to get around this by giving people the option of writing down questions and passing them forward, but for some reason this hasn't been used much in the sessions I've attended. Then again, pretty much everything in our society skews toward extroverts, so this isn't unique to the Q&A.

No, there's something else that's a bit just wrong about Q&As that I've never been able to put my finger on. Until I read The Futility of Q&A by Johnnie Moore. As he points out, it's a hierarchy thing, with the speakers up on high (usually literally, on the dais), further pumped by the "license to talk pretty much unconstrained," he says. Plus they get to move around under the spotlight, while we lowly audience members have to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in the dark.

The Q&A should give us a bump up then, right? I mean we get to stand up and go to the mic. But it's really not empowering, is it? As Johnnie points out, we still have to wait our turn until someone hands us a mic "as a reward for raising our hands like schoolchildren. We're only supposed to ask a question: again, inviting us to stay in low status, rather than say, being able to protest or make a point."

He continues, "So what happens? The frustrated lizard brains of those lucky enough to get to ask a question make us leak out aggression, sarcasm or self-importance. Half the time whoever gets the mike rambles on because they're giddy with pent up frustration; they're only doing what most of us want to do i.e. get to talk and not just listen."

Exactly. He offers some suggestions, from breaking up into small groups for discussion, a limited version of open space, or just ending earlier and giving people more time in the coffee break. I'm not sure the latter will really move conversations forward, since everyone whips out their smartphone to check e-mail instead of interacting with each other on all too many breaks, but finding some way to encourage a leveling of the playing field would likely make it a lot more productive. But then you lose the interaction with the expert speaker, which also will tick people off.

Running a Twitter stream in the background could be democratizing, but it also can be distracting, and give rise to less-than-productive sidetracks and snarkiness.

I've always thought Q&As are better than nothing, but now I'm not so sure. They do seem to work much better for webinars than live meetings. Maybe it does have something to do with the fact that, while the expert is high status by virtue of being the one we're learning from, learners aren't physically put in a lower status state. We can leave the room without being obvious about it, we can sit in comfy chairs and otherwise control our environment. The gap between introverts and extroverts is lessened since questions are submitted to the moderator instead of read out loud in front of everyone. And without all that pent-up hierarchical angst, (or perhaps it's because they won't get the spotlight, so why bother) people generally don't bother to try to get those speeches-pretending-to-be-questions out.

Particularly for large sessions, is it possible to have a productive, useful Q&A? If so, how do you make that happen? In my experience, you might get lucky and get a couple of great, thought-provoking exchanges, but more often than not, you don't.

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