5 ways to maximize Q&A time at public lectures

This post is more than 3 years old.

I attend a variety of public lectures at Earlham College here in Richmond, and while the speakers are usually quite satisfactory in both content and style, I find myself repeatedly shocked at how poorly some of the students conduct themselves in the Question and Answer segment of the programs. Self-absorbed, oft-incoherent, rambling diatribes are unfortunately a recurring experience, and even just a few minutes of this can completely change the sense of how the event went overall - and perhaps determine what impression the guest speaker takes out into the world about our community. (Surely neither I nor my peers were like that when I was a student there, right?)

I always make a mental note to write down some suggestions for improving this situation, and now that the academic year is ramping up again with plenty of lectures and convocations on the schedule, I thought I'd hold forth. So, here are my 5 tips for how to get the most out of Q & A time at public lectures:

  1. Think about the wording of your question in advance - I know this may seem obvious, but many students seem to wait until the microphone is in hand and the whole room is staring at them to compose their thoughts. You'll save everyone some time if you have a rough version of your question rehearsed in your brain, and you get extra points if you write it out on paper too.
  2. Make your question clear and concise - related to the first point, the more circuitous route you take to ask your question, the less chance you have of getting a substantial response. If you need more than two sentences, you're probably going on too long. Oh, and make sure you actually have a question - stating a bunch of ideas and just waiting for a reaction by your guest is not helpful.
  3. Q&A time is not a venue for sharing your own views at length - I can't count how many lectures I've been to where the question-asker takes five minutes to talk about what they think about some topic that may or may not be related to the event itself. Okay, you might have something interesting and insightful to say, but if you can't sum it up in a sentence and do so as a clearly relevant introduction to your question, then you're probably losing the attention (and perhaps respect) of the audience. The person at the podium is there for a reason, you'll get your turn later.
  4. Be gracious - again perhaps obvious, but I continue to be jarred by the abrasive and even vitriolic tone of some of the questions I hear asked. No matter how much you disagree with the speaker, no matter how awful you think they are, you will gain very little by insulting, interrupting or embarrassing them. (And for crying out loud, don't throw food at them - it's been done, and it has no positive utility.) I believe you can show respect while challenging the speaker, and if you do it well, the challenge may just be met with a worthwhile reflection or response.
  5. Don't follow up unless asked or necessary - a follow-up question is still a second question, and depending on the event format, you may be taking away someone else's opportunity to ask their question by getting yours in. If the speaker prompts you ("did that answer your question?") or if the speaker clearly evaded your question, a follow-up can be appropriate, but you should still be open to the possibility that moving on to someone else will yield the best results for everyone involved.

Of course, you're welcome to take issue with the above. What other tips or advice do you have for folks attending public lectures and hoping to participate in the Question & Answer section?

3 thoughts on “5 ways to maximize Q&A time at public lectures

  1. Good suggestions all. As a recent speaker at Earlham (more than once), and one who will be there again this year, I might add: listen openly. Or, more pointedly, listen. Period. In recent Q and A's following presentations I made, I was struck by questions which made it clear the questioner hadn't paid attention. (This is definitely related to your point #3.) My own students came to one of my presentations and in our discussion afterwards, they said -- unprompted, and incredulous -- did those people who asked questions at Earlham actually LISTEN? To be fully present while someone else is speaking is an art worth learning. And by learning that art, you will also learn.
    And absolutely: no food throwing. Surely we can find better ways to prompt useful dialogue than hucking pies at one another.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *