Questions after talks at conferences

At many conferences, people allow the audience to ask questions after the talks. I want to argue that this is an anti-pattern in many ways, and some solutions that have worked that I recommend.

Issues with questions

There are two primary audiences that have issues with questions:

  • Speakers

  • The audience

Let’s start with speakers. Many first-time speakers that I know have an intense anxiety around having the audience ask questions. They think, “I am going to go up and give a talk, and then someone in the audience will contradict or embarrass me for lack of knowledge afterward.” Audience questions after talks are one of the biggest sources of stress for speakers.

Now for the audience. They have chosen to attend a talk to hear from a specific speaker about a topic they are knowledgeable on. If there are 250 people in the room, each minute of the talk is over 4 hours of combined time. When you offer up a microphone to anyone in the audience, you are now offering 4 hours of peoples life to an unaudited question and answer that likely only provides value to a small minority of attendees. This is not a good use of anyone’s time, and often audiences feel trapped in a talk room during Q&A time.

Better approaches

Here are a few different approaches that I recommend a lot more than “let anyone in the audience ask a question publicly”.

Speaker goes to the front of stage for questions

At my own conferences, Write the Docs, we have established the norm of not having full audience questions. After each talk we ask the speaker to come to the front of the stage, and then have a conversation with members of the audience with questions.

This achieves a couple beneficial results:

  • People are empowered to ask questions that are more specific to their situation, instead of trying to general them for a larger audience

  • The question asker isn’t given a “stage” to promote their own projects or ideas

  • The speaker isn’t worried about being “called out” in front of the full room

  • Everyone else in the audience is free to do whatever they want

I stole this idea from XOXO, but a lot of events do a version of this.

Questions to the speaker are moderated

Another approach I’ve seen work well is that the audience is allowed to ask questions, but they are moderated. This can be done in a couple different ways:

  • A #questions Slack or IRC channel where people can ask questions

  • Index cards handed out at the beginning of a talk and collected at the end

This allows one person to moderate the questions, and forces them to be asked in a direct way. It also removes the “I have a statement, not a question” problem, because all questions are filtered through an intermediary.

This has a few benefits as well:

  • People are still able to ask the speaker for clarifiaction/explanation on parts of their talk publicly, and it benefits everyone

  • The speaker knows they won’t get ambushed by the moderator

  • The moderator can blend the questions together into a narrative and group questions in a meaningful way

I’ve seen this work quite well at conferences like Django Under The Hood and PyDX.

Questions are your responsibility

As the organizer of an event, the way that you structure the event has a direct impact on people’s experience. Opening the room to questions and not doing any moderation is abdicating your responsibility as an organizer.

I highly recommend that you adopt a more equitable approach to questions at conferences, and make them more enjoyable for everyone involved.

Hey there! I'm Eric and I work on communities in the world of software documentation. Feel free to email me if you have comments on this post!