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Friendly conference questions

──── 2 mins

Nearly every time I attended a tech conference, either as a speaker or an attendee, questions felt a bit awkward. I once saw a solution that improves the experience for everyone. It would be great to see this replicated everywhere.

For the speaker

As a speaker, conference questions meant both fear and excitement.

On one hand, I’m always excited about questions. Questions mean the audience is interested, and help me see what I didn’t articulate clearly, what people understood.

On the other hand, there’s always a bit of stress. The feeling that there might be a guy in the audience who wants to use the Q&A to show off. What happens is, that person will ask a trick question only to demonstrate their superior knowledge to the crowd.

Now, not knowing all the answers is perfectly fine. Being a speaker only means your talk proposal was accepted, it doesn’t make you an expert. Still, it’s not fun to get grilled in front of an entire amphitheatre.

For the audience

For attendees, questions often occurs in one of two ways. It can be either a staff member running around with a microphone to give to whoever was selected to ask a question. Or, in a more organised fashion, there’s a microphone on a stand and people queue to ask their questions.

This can be problematic for attendees too. Most people aren’t used to hearing their voice in a microphone, and the feeling of 200 eyes looking at you is intimidating. Consequently, some audience members don’t speak.

The solution: Breakout discussions + online async

The solution that I saw at a few conferences: breakout discussions.

Here’s how breakout discussions work (also called “discussion slots” or “discussion rooms”): After the talks, each speaker gets a corner of the room where people can ask their questions directly.

  • This space for discussion happens during the break, so no one misses out on the next talk.
  • For attendees, the questions are less intimidating without the pressure of 200 people hearing them. Subsequent conversations flowed more naturally, and so did follow-ups.
  • For speakers, the experience is like a one-to-one conversation rather than one-to-many. Less stress about getting things wrong, mishearing or misunderstanding the question.

These informal breakout discussions create a casual, down-to-earth atmosphere where everyone is relaxed. If you’re an organiser, I’d encourage you to try this.

For everyone else, have you seen other formats that make conference questions more friendly? If so, I’d be curious to hear it.

Thank you to Harshil and Brittany for reading drafts of this.

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