How Speakers, Audience Members, & Mods Can Improve Q&As

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.
How Speakers, Audience Members, & Mods Can Improve Q&As

8 thoughts on “How Speakers, Audience Members, & Mods Can Improve Q&As

  1. xyz



    I do a lot of speaking and discussion moderation with community groups, so I will briefly add what works for me.

    Owning It: this is a prereq for the moderator too, along with the speaker. My usual thing is to do the “iron fist in a velvet glove” tactic. I’ll be feminine and nice till there is an interruption or some other bullshit, and then BAM, I deliver a matter of fact smackdown. This will get you an ice queen reputation. That’s a pretty ok reputation to have.

    Also, for those who speak and mod, and sometimes moderate your own q&as: know what hat you are wearing at the moment and make sure the audience knows too. It’s a longtime observation of mine that That Guy mods are oftentimes frequent speakers who think moderation duties = speaker duties. Not so. It’s a different skill set! I always delineate the two roles by my outfits (mod = subtle and neutral, speaking = pop of color) and if I am leading my own q&a, I physically move away from the podium or whatever when I’m done speaking. It signals to me and others that I am now made Mod, Destroyer of Worlds.

  2. 2

    My question is , although I totally agree with you I think it will sound better in a mans voice.

    sorry, I couldn’t resist.

    A couple of weeks ago I watched your debate on the existence of god, a few days before I had watched R Carriers debate at the same venue. Although I am always grateful that people upload these debates , both Dr Carriers and your debate suffered from the same problem* with the moderator.

    I watch a lot of debates and particularly enjoy the format of q&a between the debaters followed by q&a between the debaters and audience, but unfortunately neither you or Dr Carrier had any real questions.

    I’m sure the moderator is a very very nice Christian lady but that was the problem, she surely knew, being that they were from her congregation, that a number of the old white men were not going to be asking genuine questions (I saw her eyes flick skyward as each stood up) but were going to use the opportunity to be an arsehole (and I could go through the lists and point out exactly which arsehole was doing what arsehole behaviour as i still remember most of it), but she gave them waaay too much leeway. As soon as someone in the Q&A says “You’re wrong and I am going to read the bit of my book that proves it!”, they should be shut down. Unfortunately both you and Dr Carrier got IIRC at least 4 of these “questions”. She should have been as firm as you were with one old guy, but it shouldn’t have come to that as by that point everyone was becoming a bit fractious.

    Just for balance, Dr Carrier’s debate did have a couple of “angry atheists” in the Q&A for the Historicity side, and they should have been shut down quicker as well.

    *the problem is more usually the sound quality.

    1. 2.1

      The lady was nice but definitely not firm enough in her moderation. I wasn’t in the right circumstances to demand or advise or suggest anything from her as a mod, but in future, I probably will be a bit more aggressive with enforcement.

  3. 3

    I’ve just seen that you’ve done a debate on “Homosexuality – Inborn or pervasive?”

    One of the Christians is the less enlightened/knowledgeable of the two who debated Dr Carrier.

    I’m in a pretty good mood right now and plan on meeting friends for a drink later. I already know from the comments, that if I watch it while I do a bit of housework and get ready I’m going to be swearing quite a lot, but is it worth ruining my mood over?

  4. 5

    Hell, yes.

    I would also add to this, for moderators (or speakers, if we’re the ones moderating and calling on people): Pay attention to demographics. Call on women and people of color FIRST, and keep doing it throughout Q&A. If the only people with their hands in the air for the first question are white men, give it a moment and give other people time to raise their hands. Women and POC are, to put it mildly, not socialized to speak up or think our voices will be listened to — so make sure they get heard, early and often. (Doing this consciously also helps counter moderators’ and speakers’ own unconscious biases about this. I’ve seen moderators call on only white men, even when women and POC had their hands up throughout the entire Q&A.) Also, in my experience, women and POC are less likely to just bloviate pointlessly. Maybe something about not having been brought up with a sense of entitlement about being listened to no matter what you’re saying…

    Related to this: For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, DO NOT do that lazy thing where you just set up a mic and let Q&A people line up behind it. That is a virtual guarantee that entitled jerks will ask the first ten questions.

Leave a Reply

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