The conference Q&A questions that help us all

How do you ask a good question at a conference Q&A session? It seems like a simple thing but it’s not always obvious, or easy, to ask a good question that gets a worthwhile answer, and a lot of us unintentionally get it really quite wrong.

There’s the heart-racing, palms-sweating, lump-in-my-throat mild terror of standing up in a room of people and addressing the brilliant speaker you’ve just listened to. You’re trying to remember what you wanted to ask, but you mostly just want to run away. You forget what you wanted to say as soon as you stand up to speak. 

So. Much. Regret.

Some of us are also reflective thinkers: we only really know what we want to say once we’ve started saying it. We end up rambling, suddenly realising we’ve been speaking for ages but haven’t actually asked our question yet. Awkward.

Sometimes we don’t really have a question, but the speaker has sparked a brilliant thought that we’d like to talk about. It’s only once we’ve stood up and started talking to them about it that we notice a room of people are now watching us trying to have that conversation in front of them. We slowly, quietly peter out, hoping someone will take pity and pick up the slack… They don’t, of course, and then everyone is staring.

At me. 

Fun.

And sometimes, the speaker is talking about something you fundamentally disagree with. What on earth do you do when what they’ve just said is plain, straight-up wrong?

The pressure in the moment can also make it pretty hard to think clearly once you’ve got a mic in your sweaty hand, and when you set that alongside any nerves the speaker themselves might be feeling (especially if they’re a new speaker) it’s a potential recipe for a socially awkward situation that no-one enjoys living through.

Here, then, are some top tips to help you ask a better question, to get a better answer - much more fun, for everybody.

 

1. Be kind. Remember that most speakers are really nervous (even experienced ones!)

The first rule of any interaction should be to “be kind”. We rarely have insight into the experience and emotional state of the person we’re speaking to; if we can be generous in our thinking and in how we ask our questions and offer our support wherever we can, we’re all going to have a better experience because of it.

Lots of speakers are doing this for the first time and are already nervous, if not straight-up terrified of standing up in front of a room full of strangers and potentially laying themselves open to embarrassment or ridicule. Even experienced speakers still have nerves, because standing in front of a room of people and inviting their judgement is, frankly, quite nerve-wracking.
 

scared stick man under spotlight

Keeping that in mind and showing compassion and understanding when you ask your question can help the speaker answer more effectively, which is better for everyone in the session.

 

2. Try not to attack: no-one looks good in a public takedown

public argument cartoon

Sometimes people say things that we don’t agree with. It’s completely ok to disagree with them. The problem is that a whole room of interested people are not necessarily interested in the bits we disagree with, and we’re not going to look good to anyone if we try and start a debate in the 3-5mins of precious question time before the break or the next session, especially if other people also have questions. No-one is going to thank us for this!

Speakers don’t usually mind if you disagree with them; it comes with the territory. Much better, though, to address that with them in a conversation after the Q&A if for no other reason than if we pick them up on it in front of everyone else, we’re most likely to trigger a fight/flight response in the speaker that means they won’t be able to take our observation or correction on board anyway, and the audience will then be more distracted by the speaker’s reaction to our correction, than to the correction itself - all of which makes our words and all our effort completely pointless.

If you’ve got some insight - research, experience, subject matter expertise and so on - then the speaker will almost certainly value a deeply insightful conversation afterwards, which has the added benefit of giving you both an extended opportunity to learn from each other.

things to try
 

3. Brevity is better

questions and solutions cartoon

The speaker probably doesn’t need that much context to give you a helpful answer - and if they do, they can always ask for it.

As a practical exercise, try giving yourself a ten-word maximum, counting down on your fingers as you go, to help you stick to just the words you need.


In the spirit of maximising the amount of work not done, questions are often easier to answer if they’re brief.

If you know you’re prone to a bit of rambling (see my intro for a prime example…), write down a few key words to help you form a clear question, and then refer to them as you speak to keep yourself on-track.

things to try

4. Ask a question rather than making a statement

dreaming of unasked questions

Sometimes, there’s something you want to ask but you’re not quite sure what it is yet. The only problem with that, is trying to work that out loud, whilst you’re talking to the speaker, takes up a chunk of the short Q&A time available. 

If you’re not entirely sure, take a moment to write down the thing you found interesting or surprising, and use the time someone else is getting their question answered, to turn your thought into a question instead.

That could look like “I found it very interesting that you… (e.g. did / used X), how did you (apply / work out / learn / discover / stop… Etc!)?” or “I loved that you said X, what are your thoughts on how / when / where we could X?”

things to try
 

5. Be constructive and curious: look for what you can learn

“WWWHWWW” is a pithy model* that can help us ask something to build on the speaker’s ideas and explore their knowledge of the topic for everyone’s benefit. Starting with an open question, for example, one of these perhaps:

Who…?
What…?
Where…?
How…?
When…?
Which…?
Why…?

constructive dialogue

Using open questions to explore how you (and by proxy, everyone else in the audience) can apply what you’ve heard to your own work, can make the session even more useful for everyone in the room - this is a big reason to go to conferences, so getting that out of the session if it hasn’t already happened, will earn you the appreciation of just about everyone in the room. 

Asking about insights and top tips, key challenges and how the speaker overcame them, the most important thing they learned, is not only going to give you something valuable to take away - it’s also going to earn you the respect and appreciation of the audience for filling in the gaps, and the speaker for helping them look better. A definite prosocial win-win!

things to try
 

 

Ultimately, if you stick to asking about what you don’t yet know, leaving as much space as possible for the speaker to give their answer and being thoughtful of them as a human with feelings, you’ll help everyone in the room get more of what they came for. You hero, you!
 

* I shamelessly repurposed this joke from John Clapham. His work is fascinating and funny, and you should definitely check it out

Ceri Newton-Sargunar
@HotCupOfTeaPls