Navigating the Pitfalls of the Q & A Session
Be sure you have questions, not "comments."
The presentation had been outstanding, and I was looking forward to the question-and-answer session. Not that I had any questions. I was too awed by the personal accounts of the four holocaust survivors to ask any of my own. But I assumed others in the audience would have some. Since there was only half an hour remaining in the lecture hall reservation, the moderator gave us just a few minutes to formulate questions and then moved briskly into the Q and A. She recognized an elderly man in the first row.
"I don't have a question," he began, "but I have a comment." He then offered a five-minute account of his own experiences as a holocaust survivor in Lithuania and how prejudice was not limited to Germans.
Another man in the front row was recognized. He followed up on the previous remarks and mentioned an example of prejudice in 20th century America. A third audience member welcomed these remarks and amplified them. Another person talked about an official American genocide program - the extermination of the Indians. And so it went.
I glanced at my watch. Fifteen minutes had passed, half of the time scheduled for the Q and A. Several audience members had spoken but I had not heard a single question. None of the panelists had said a word.
This scenario is, unfortunately, all too common. Speeches, seminars and interviews commonly end with an opportunity for questions from the audience. This segment is potentially the most interesting and informative part of a presentation. But unless the speaker or moderator takes firm control, the question-and-answer session has a tendency to wander from its intended course. At worst, the Q and A can degenerate into little more than a forum for members of the audience to air their own views and opinions. The moderator has the responsibility to ensure that, first of all, questions are asked. In addition, the moderator must make sure that questions can be heard by both the speaker and the audience and, finally, that the questions are appropriate and focused.
One way to handle a Q and A session is to have audience members write their questions on slips of paper and pass them to the moderator, who then reads them aloud. Writing a question encourages an audience member to be concise and focused. The moderator can screen out any questions that are obviously inappropriate. And, best of all, the moderator can read the questions aloud from the position where acoustics are the best - the lectern or stage where the microphones are.
This Q and A procedure is followed routinely in a number of forums, notably National Press Club luncheons. It provides an orderly and efficient way to handle questions. The main disadvantages are that questions must be written legibly and that paper and pencils must be provided in advance for everyone in the audience. Also, listeners may be tempted to write questions during the presentation, which can be distracting to the speaker and the audience.
When written questions are not practical, a moderator can take the following measures to ensure that the Q and A session is carried out smoothly.
More often the moderator has the opposite problem. Questioners who ramble or try to make a speech of their own should be tactfully but promptly silenced. Anyone who starts out by saying, "I don't have a question..." should be cut off at once with something like: "Excuse me, but right now we are only taking specific questions for the speaker. I hope we can have an open forum on this subject in the future, but tonight our time is limited."
Sometimes the moderator will encounter an audience member who simply will not shut up. This individual is determined to make a statement before a captive audience and feels he should not be denied the opportunity. But as U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote, freedom of speech does not give someone the right to falsely shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Nor does it give an audience member the right to insult an invited speaker or waste time with an inappropriate speech of his own.
An incident like this happened toward the end of the Q and A session I described at the start of this article. An audience member stood up and began to deliver what promised to be a long political statement offensive to the panel members. The moderator interrupted him, stating that this was not the place for such comments. The audience member protested, saying that his right to free speech was being infringed. The moderator replied that this was her forum and if he did not sit down she would call security and have him removed. He sat down, and I felt like applauding the moderator. We eventually did have a few good questions for the panelists. No doubt the next time she chairs a seminar of this sort, the moderator will use what she learned and will run a much better meeting.
Many of the skills needed to run a question-and-answer session can be applied in almost any setting requiring a moderator. Have you ever been in a business meeting or a discussion group where speakers strayed from the topic at hand? Have you ever been in a meeting where this did not happen? Even Toastmasters meetings sometimes require a firm hand from the president to keep the schedule on track. By facilitating an orderly meeting, whether Q and A or otherwise, the moderator will ensure that it is a valuable experience for all.