The applause dies down. Precious few minutes remain before everyone is shuffled out of the room. “All right,” calls the speaker, “let’s see if anyone in the audience has a question.”
Your arm shoots up. Wow, the microphone is heavier than expected. Is this thing on? You sneak a quick breath and… what do you ask?
Audience q and a questions are a tricky bit of social gymnastics. You need to give a tight, clean performance that absolutely sticks the landing. And you need to both plan and execute this performance in just a few minutes.
As someone who attended many conventions in a past life – and sat through many more… unproductive audience Q&A sessions – I have a few tips for audiences everywhere. These simple guidelines will help you craft better questions that make the most of your limited time with the speaker.
Don’t start your question with a story
Q&A sessions create a lot of nervous energy, especially with a large audience. That energy can make you ramble. Resist this urge. Rambling distracts from your question. It causes the speaker to mentally race to keep up with you. How many times have you sat through a long-winded question only to hear, “Wait, what are you asking?”
Do start your question clearly and concisely
Keep your introduction short and sweet: just your name and a bit about yourself. That gives the speaker just enough context about you, which can help them form a better response. Some Q&A sessions are also strictly timeboxed. Saving a bit of time upfront lets you answer follow-up questions from the speaker if asked.
Don’t ask multi-part questions
At best, multi-part questions are a symptom of someone who knows what they want to learn, but is unsure how to get that information from the speaker. At worst, someone is a microphone hog. The former is fixed by slowing down and deliberately thinking through the goal of your question. The latter is fixed by showing empathy for your peers.
Do ask a single question with a single goal
Audience Q&A sessions typically have too many questions and too little time. If you get to ask one of these questions, limit yourself to just one. Don’t try to game the system and sneak in two questions for the price of one. Be respectful of your fellow audience members and relinquish the mic after one question.
Don’t ask binary questions (unless you really mean to)
Binary questions have two outcomes: yes or no, true or false. Are you excited? Yes. Great, next question. They require the bare minimum to be fulfilled. Most speakers I’ve seen volunteer extra information in their response, but they have to infer what the other person wants to know. Don’t make the speaker guess.
Do ask questions that invite a story
The best insights come from stories. Start your question with what, why, or how to tease out this information. Learning that a film director is excited about a project isn’t all that interesting. But learning about their childhood spent exploring caves and forests, and how that inspired their project, is. Ask questions that invite these stories.
Don’t ask unrelated questions (unless otherwise stated)
This point may sound obvious, but I’ve seen too many good questions shot down by bad timing. If a room full of people paid to hear about X, and you ask about Y, there’s a good chance all you’ll get is, “Sorry, we’re not discussing that topic at this time.” No one wants to hear that. It’s just a few steps removed for a parent scolding a child.
Do ask questions related to the topic discussed
Staying on topic is a win-win for the entire room. You get to ask a great question, the audience learns something new, and the presenter may even update their presentation proper with the information discussed. If the presentation is more casual or open-ended, feel free to go wild. Otherwise, keep it relevant.
Making it all the way to the microphone only to instantly forget your question feels like a living nightmare. If this happens to you, cut your losses. Don’t dig yourself into a hole by improvising something on the spot. Toss out a, “Oh, sorry, my question was already addressed.” and slip away as gracefully as possible.
Jot down the beginning of your question in your phone or on a slip of paper. No need to write out the whole thing. The first few words are typically enough to jog your memory and let that momentum carry you through the rest of the question. Writing down even part of your questions also helps you codify exactly what you’re asking.