The day before April’s LeedsJS meetup, I decided to try not having Q&A after the talks in favour of encouraging people to come and chat to the speakers directly. There were a variety of reasons as to why I felt that this would be the best route, and it seems to have been a success!
Before April’s event, we’d always had Q&A after the talks. Over the 3 years that I’ve been involved in LeedsJS, I’ve experienced a few reoccurring issues with the Q&A part of the talks.
The question designed to show off how much the asker knows
This is one of my least favourite things I’ve had happen. Someone asks a question but puts it in a way that is intended to try and show that the asker knows more about the topic than the speaker.
This really sucks because the speaker has just given up a huge chunk of their time to share their knowledge and teach others. The asker has not and is basically stroking their own ego.
“I have this specific problem with my code, fix it for me”
This is another one I really hate. The asker in this instance is basically asking the speaker to do work for them for free, on top of the work they had to do to prepare and deliver the talk.
What makes this worse for me is that it’s likely that the asker came to the event with this question in mind, planning to ask the speaker to do this free work.
It’s also disrespectful to the audience, they don’t care about your specific code issues and they have no context for them anyway.
“More of a statement than a question, but…”
I feel this is another example of the asker stroking their own ego. Rather than ask a question, the “asker” makes a statement, usually trying to correct something the speaker said or giving their opinion. To me this is hugely disrespectful, especially considering the time and effort that the speaker has put in.
The question that’s largely irrelevant to the talk
This usually happens when someone focuses on a small aspect of the talk that wasn’t really relevant to the central point. It may be of interest to the asker but isn’t related to what the speaker wanted people to take away from the talk or even something that the speaker has an opinion about.
The joke question
While most people like a joke, unfortunately people aren’t very original when it comes to thinking one up. Often when there’s a joke question about a talk, the speaker has heard it multiple times already. To them, the humour has likely worn off and become tedious, especially if it’s something related to them and not the talk.
A decent chunk of the audience probably doesn’t care
While there can still be good questions in a Q&A, it’s still usually something that only a handful of your audience actually wants to know more about. The rest of your audience is becoming disengaged and just wants your event to progress. The question that’s largely irrelevant to the talk and the “I have this specific problem with my code, fix it for me” also fall into this category.
On top of the things I’ve seen happen before at LeedsJS, there are some things that I also see as areas where Q&A falls down or can be an issue. This stuff is either from my own experience as an organiser/speaker/attendee or what I’ve learned from others through discussions.
The speaker is put on the spot
For some folks, being put on the spot to answer something that they’ve not been able to prepare for is anxiety-inducing and something that they want to avoid.
You may argue “you’re expected to know this stuff” but I disagree, talks aren’t only for experts. They’re for sharing experiences and ideas, for inspiring folks to try something and for encouraging people to learn too. It’s fine to not know the answer to a question, but being asked to admit this on stage in front of an audience is likely something that people want to avoid.
Similarly, you may argue “you can’t prepare for everything in life”, but giving a talk is an already stressful situation that someone has spent a lot of time on preparation for. Adding a wildcard element into that is unnecessary extra stress.
Asking questions can be daunting
After publishing this post, Nic on Twitter mentioned that some folks don’t like asking questions in front of a room full of people. This is an aspect that I’d forgotten to mention but one that I’ve experienced myself.
Public speaking is one of the most common fears that people have and in this situation asking a question is public speaking. This means that many people won’t want to ask a question, no matter how much they want to know the answer. It can also mean that people can leave the talk feeling frustrated and confused, which is the opposite of what a speaker wants.
Conversations are more meaningful
In my experience, the questions asked usually need some sort of back and forth to get an answer that both sides are happy with. This is really difficult to do when the speaker is on stage or at the front of the room and the asker is amongst a sea of faces.
Having a conversation allows the speaker and asker to be on the same page and get an answer that they’re both happy with. On top of this, the speaker can ask other people questions when in a conversation situation, meaning that everyone can learn something.
It drags down the end of the talk
Often when a speaker ends their talk, they end it with something like a point that they want the audience to think about or with a big finish to wow the audience. The mood is then brought down by the Q&A and usually ends at the lowest point of lingering silence to see if there are any more questions.
What we’re doing instead
At LeedsJS we have 2 talks split by a 20 minute break. Instead of Q&A, I encourage people to come and chat with the speaker after the talk. This means that only those who are interested in learning more can be part of the conversation instead of everyone being forced into it.
During this time I make sure I’m around the speaker for support and so that I can step in if someone is being rude or if there’s an issue.
The conversations after the talks at the April event were great, the speaker and attendees all seemed to be enjoying the conversations. There seemed to be a lot of back and forth and there was some great discussion about parts of the talk or things related to it.
I’ve declared the trial at April’s event a success. Q&A is not coming back to LeedsJS.
What prompted this?
This has been something that’s been in my head for a while, but a few things recently brought it to the front of my mind.
Firstly, I was picked to speak at ScotlandJS 2018, which has something they call the “discussion track”. After every 3 talks, there’s a 20 minute break where the speakers from those talks will be in an advertised location for people to come and chat with them.
I also attended the JSHeroes conference the week before April’s LeedsJS event. While the conference was great and the organisers tried to make the Q&A section as engaging as possible, it still suffered many of the issues I’ve mentioned in this post. This is not the fault of the organisers, the work they did was fantastic!
Another thing was that Kitze shared his “awesome conference practices“ document. There was some healthy discussion about Q&A as part of that and I realised that other people shared my views on Q&A.