A Gawker writer recently pointed this out and proposed banning the type of person who is generally responsible for the awful; The Toast has a hilariously astute post listing out the most awful (sometimes in a banal way) questions that are commonly asked at Q&As.
Now, I’ve done a lot of talks and panels. Personally, I enjoy leaving a decent chunk of free time at the end of question-and-answer sessions. This is especially true when I’m talking about Islam. One my talks from a few years back was half an hour of me talking followed by an hour and a half of Q&A. It was fun. It was awesome.
Still, all it takes is one jerkwad to ruin the awesome and the fun that interaction and discussion is supposed to be for all attending. As I run primarily on rage as a fuel source, I can’t get behind the Gawker writer’s suggestion, but I do have some tips for ensuring that the That Guy that invariably shows up to the Q&A provides a few lulz but isn’t enabled to totally hijack the event.
Speakers: Someone Must Own It
I’ve talked about confidence issues among female speakers before, and how I try to encourage them. Not strutting and preening a bit will lead your audience to think of you as a “nice” person; there will always be at least one person who thinks that “nice person” (especially “nice female-seeming person”) equals “I get to take over her platform and she will let me!”
It shouldn’t work that way, to be sure, but it does. The solution is to either own it in a direct and powerful way, or to have someone assist you in doing so.
Owning it means signaling that you know that you are competent and worthy of the stage. There are many ways to pull such power moves, not all of which are obvious. Self-deprecating jokes, for example, are a total power move as long as they aren’t self-pitying, as is referring to yourself in abstracted third person.
For example, I have referred to myself as “a certain friendly budget-friendly ex-Muslim speaker”, which lets people know that I don’t cost a lot to bring me on as a speaker; the combination of the dig at myself in the “I’m so not-famous I am referring to myself as if I don’t know myself” with the self-promotion of “You should bring me out to speak” makes it funny rather than arrogant or pathetic.
If you are a speaker and can’t or won’t or don’t want to own it, get someone else to set the stage for you. Talk to the organizer(s) and see what they can do. That’s their job, and they tend to like specific, direct asks for assistance. Which brings me to —
Organizers: Use Introductions Wisely
If your speaker cannot, will not, or does not own it hard enough to deter the That Guy in the audience who is just waiting for his chance to inject his opinion, you can use the speaker introduction to do just that. Most intros are full of praise, but being specific with your praise as well as emphasizing the speaker’s power and accomplishments will go a long way.
For example, saying “Heina has a blog, and it’s awesome!” is a sweet thing to say, but doesn’t tell the audience that they ought to respect me in a way that precludes condescending, rambling, and/or self-serving “questions” at the Q&A. Rephrasing to “Heina got their start at Skepchick but now has their own platform at Freethought Blogs, regularly writing insightful pieces on a variety of topics including [topic of talk]” sends a much clearer “Do not fuck with this person” message.
Organizers: A Bad Mod < No Mod < A Good Mod
Some That Guys are smart enough to realize that the better gig isn’t Shouty Audience Guy, but Volunteer Moderator. No, seriously. I have seen more That Guy mods than I had thought were possible. On the flip side, there are mods who are too soft and don’t own it hard enough to make the audience (or even their own panelists) respect them. Both of these are versions of bad moderating and really, you’re better off without them. They make things worse by fostering a free-for-all atmosphere.
No mod is the default for a lot of spaces, and it’s an okay system. Better still is a good mod. Mods can serve so many purposes: Doing the intro. Starting off the Q&A with disclaimers. Shutting down the jerkwads. Speaking of which…
Moderators: You Have One Job
Your job is to make the event better for everyone involved by doing things that the speaker and the audience can’t, won’t, or doesn’t want to do. The audience doesn’t want to do anything that takes away from enjoying and somewhat idolize the speaker, and the speaker doesn’t want to lay down the law with the audience lest they spoil the magic. You need to pay attention to the vibe of the crowd and work with the speaker to ensure that everything goes smoothly.
You have the power to say, at the beginning of a Q&A, that people shouldn’t ramble on grandstand or filibuster or pontificate, in those words. You can cut audience members who are making rambly speeches right the fuck off. You can tell someone to please be respectful. And you should, when it’s needed.
Audience Members: Reign Yourself
It can be tempting, especially when a speaker is wrong, to want to correct them or bring up a point they are overlooking. Making a point or a correction is not a question. Equally tempting is agreeing with the speaker and/or stanning for them in the hopes that senpai will notice you. “I love your work” is not a question.
Don’t. Please. Most speakers have ways you can get in touch with them that aren’t their Q&As. Use those. If you must, at least attempt a question. If you hate the speaker and all they stand for so much, you can do a little research and pre-load some legitimate, short questions that will put them on the spot. If you love the speaker and all that they do so much, you should be able to ask them something regarding their body of work or talk since you must be curious about this person you like.
For example, in 2007, I went to see Daniel Pipes speak. To say that I do not agree with him about anything of note is to put it lightly. Prepared notes in hand, I listened to his talk carefully and came up with a question that took me less than 30 seconds to ask and led to him sputtering a bit. It went something along the lines of “You said you respect human rights but given [specific, rather hardline thing he said about Muslims], how are we supposed to avoid perpetuating discrimination and hatred?” Bam. I sounded inquisitive, interested, and thoughtful, which I was, instead of looking to get a rise out of the speaker at an event (which I also was).
As an audience member, you can help by saying what everyone else is feeling about that rude jerk. Seriously. If you’re asking a question sometime after the That Guy, you can say “Don’t worry, I’ve got an actual question!” with a knowing head-incline in the direction of the That Guy. You’ll get a laugh and he’ll get dressed down.
Proposed Universal Rules for Q&A
These can be announced by the speaker, mod, or organizer, and kept in mind by audience members.
- A question is less than a minute long and ends with a question mark. No exceptions.
- People who have not yet asked a question will be prioritized over those who have.
- Follow-up questions are considered to be separate questions from the original and are therefore subject to the rules above.
- The speaker will repeat the question back to the audience for the benefit of everyone (including the audio/video recording). This repetition is not an invitation for heated debate.
- Optional But Highly Recommended: Note cards will be distributed for those who prefer to ask their questions that way and collected at the ends of each row when the Q&A is about to begin.