The Art of Organising Successful Q&A Sessions at Conferences

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Q&A sessions are loathed by many event planners because they are the least predictable part of many conferences. As an organiser, you have no idea if your attendees will have any questions for your speakers. And if they will, how relevant will these questions be for the discussion?

To succeed in organising a successful Q&A session, there is a number of elements that need to be handled attentively. But with a bit of planning, Q&A sessions can become a highlight for many of your event attendees.

Below we present 6 steps to hosting immersive Q&A sessions that both your attendees and your speakers will enjoy.

1. Brief your moderator

A moderator is a central figure of facilitating the conversation between your attendees and speakers. Think of him or her as a conductor who is driving the event car with participants sitting in the back. And it’s up to him if he brings them successfully to the final destination.

Briefing your moderator is therefore absolutely essential for hosting immersive Q&A sessions and exciting panel discussions as he steers the conversation between presenters and their audiences.

When instructing him, make sure to cover the following points:

– how many Q&A sessions and panel discussions you plan to hold
– how long the questions’ sections will last
– how you imagine collecting audience questions

You can also:

– brainstorm possible questions for speakers with him
– encourage him to rehearse with speakers if necessary
– inform him if you plan to use a Q&A tool and brief him how to use it

2. Synchronise with your speakers

For most of the speakers, a post-presentation Q&A session is more stressful than the speech itself. And many struggle to prepare for questions that they don’t know yet.

As a planner, you can help them ace the questions time by communicating clearly your expectations:

– Let them know how long the Q&A will be and how many questions they can expect

– Encourage your moderator to have a mock Q&A section with them prior to the event

– Tell your moderator to go through the first 1-2 pre-prepared questions with them

– Rehearse answers so they gain confidence 

Marketing festival example:

Before the event kicked-off, the Marketing festival moderator (in the picture above) showed speakers where the Q&A sessions would take place and ran a mock session with them.

3. Give presenters tips for handling Qs

While all speakers (hopefully) practice their talks, the truth is that a very few of them get prepared for the Q&A. Giving the basic tips to your speakers might help them nail the Q&A.

But be very sensitive… Showing them the tips might make them feel incompetent. Ask friendly about their experience with handling Q&A and offer them a few sources in case they are interested in getting extra advice.

The presentation expert Nancy Duarte wrote up an excellent article for nailing presentation Q&A.

She suggests speakers to:

a) Decide when and how you want to take questions during your talk

b) Brainstorm every potential question the audience might ask

c) Rehearse answers with others in the safe environment

And I would add my personal hack I do before every speaking gig, which proved to be working magically.

d) I submit my own questions for the Q&A to sli.do. I send in the questions which are relevant and I’m comfortable with. Fielding a few question nicely kicks off further discussion.

You can also offer your speakers the option to run a pre-event survey to find out what questions the audience will come to the event with. This way he can consider them for his presentation and prepare better for the Q&A session as well.

4. Dedicate enough time to Q&A

Q&A is becoming more than just an obligatory add-on after presentations. Attendees expect to get engaged with speakers in two-way conversation and not only listen to their content broadcast.

There are conferences that build their entire program on conversations and dialogues. For instance, Saastr Annual conference, the largest gathering of Saastr founders, conducted onstage interviews with their guests instead of having them present slide after slide.

Another shining example is the Pioneers festival in Vienna. They divide all speaking slots into 40min speech part and 20min Q&A part. By dedicating 20 minutes to a Q&A, the organisers managed to pull the audience into the dialogue and succeeded in turning presentations into conversations.

To make your audience feel heard, make sure to dedicate sufficient time to Q&A.

Instead of having your presenters speak for the full hour, try to split their slot in the following ratio:

40 talk: 20 Q&A 

or even

30 talk: 30 Q&A

5. Prepare the questions in advance

There is a saying: “By failing to prepare. You prepare to fail.”

It’s good to have a few questions up your sleeve that you can use if you don’t receive any from the audience.
By posting your own question, you can effectively kick off the Q&A and motivate the audience to join in.

There are practically two means of preparing questions prior to your event:

1. DIY
Encourage your moderator to do the research about speakers and their presentation topics. Based on the findings, come up with the relevant questions. This method might be a bit more time-consuming but it gives you more control.

2. Leverage the power of the crowd
Use the Q&A tool and have the future participants to send in their questions. In this way, your audience can clearly indicate where they’d like to discussion going.

Each of the approaches has its own pros and cons, and it’s ideal to use both of them to balance the nature of questions.

6. Collect the questions from your audience

It’s super simple – no questions, no Q&A! And every event organisers dreads the silence in the room when the moderator prompts the audience: “Do you have any questions?”

Generally, you can collect questions in three ways:

Raising a hand

Raising your hand is probably the oldest form of asking for a permission to have a say. No tool or app can fully replace this action of interaction. Unfortunately, only very few audience members dare to ask questions by raising their hand to 74% of adults are paralysed by a public-speaking phobia.

As a rule of thumb, this way of posting question works better in smaller, more intimate groups than among the large audience.

Similarly, people tend to join the Q&A by raising their hands after the first couple of questions were asked and the ice in the room was broken.

Twitter

As many audience members embraced Twitter for live-tweeting and providing real-time feedback, event planners started using their event hashtag feed for collecting questions. In certain cases, this could be a temporary solution for avoiding the silent room.

But in general, there are two issues with using Twitter for Q&A.

1. Questions get lost in the stream of other tweets
2. Many questions don’t get asked at all as some people are not comfortable with posting questions to their Twitter feed

Display attendees’ tweets to boost interaction and increase the reach but consider Q&A tools for collecting questions.

Q&A tools

In recent years, the events industry experienced the rise of Q&A tools that allow event planners to crowd-source the best questions from the audience. Attendees can submit their questions via their smartphones and democratically vote up the ones they find most relevant for discussion.

The advantage of these tools is that you can gather the questions already during the talk. So when the Q&A time comes, you have a stack of questions ready for turning the presentation seamlessly into a conversation.

Moreover, as participants can give votes to submitted questions, you can easily distinguish average ones from truly interesting.

While these tools are super-efficient and often low-budget, they need certain technical requirement and the stable wifi. But if your sort this out, you should give them a shot.

In summary

Q&A sessions are gaining more and more traction as audiences expect immersive experiences at events. Getting the Q&A right is, therefore, crucial for overall satisfaction of your attendees and the success of your event. Try to implement the proposed steps and make Q&A sessions a highlight of your event:

– Brief your moderator
– Synchronise with speakers
– Give presenters tips for handling Qs
– Dedicate enough time to Q&A
– Prepare the questions in advance
– Collect the questions from your audience

source: sli.do