The topic of audience participation during a talk and the questions afterwards is a well argued one.
Some speakers welcome audience participation during talks. Some would rather talk first and then take questions at the end. It may be worth asking your speakers what they prefer and enforcing it.
Others would prefer the audience never ask questions as most of them don’t add anything. They say the audience can talk to the speaker afterwards. Well, some people will, but some won’t be able to find the speaker or will be to shy to go up and butt in on whatever the speaker is doing. And sometimes, listening in as someone else talks with the speaker can be really informative.
Some let people just shout questions, while some have questions submitted somehow and a moderator pre-approves them.
You’ll have to experiment and decide what works for your speaker and your community. (Personally, I’d happily ban questions during the talk but I think that the questions after can sometimes be the best bit.)
But whatever you do, it must be very well moderated. You need someone to set the tone, and who can then jump in and be strict if needed. The bigger your audience gets, the more important this and the suggestions that follow are.
If a meandering discussion starts that is off-topic or one person starts to dominate the discussion just politely but firmly kill it. “I’m sorry but that’s getting off-topic; why don’t we continue this discussion afterwards? Any other questions?”
If people are shouting questions, insist everyone puts their hand up and be strict about the order. This gives quiet people a chance to ask questions, and stops it becoming a free for all. Or if it’s a smaller event, say “Does anyone who hasn’t asked a question yet have one?” at some point.
Be clear about an end point at which people can leave without offending the speaker and those who choose to stay can start their own discussions.
If people are talking at the back, ask them to be quiet politely. Especially in an un-micced venue it will be hard for those around them to hear the speaker, so they are being selfish. (Also, this may be a sign that the session has gone on for to long.)
Generally speaking, this means the speaker can’t moderate their own talk. It’s possible but if your the one getting involved in a long drawn out ramble, it’s harder to gather the authority to stop it and move on. Also it’s good to have someone with an outside perspective who can see when the questions have gone on for to long.
Also, it’s a tiny courtesy, but I think the moderater has to make sure the audience are paying attention at the start. When you call for attention in a room, it might take a minute for everyone to sit down, finish the remark to their neighbour they were half way through and arrange their bags or whatever. Don’t make a speaker start over that and have to fight for the audiences attention – the moderator should do that for them. Just keep waffling an introduction for 30 seconds or so at the start until you are sure the audience is ready, and then pass over to the speaker.
The worst I’ve seen is one talk where they said strictly all questions had to come in over Twitter and a moderator would ask them during a final session. (So no questions over 140 characters then? Hmmm.) However after one question the organiser of the event started shouting questions from the audience. Because he had done so it gave everyone else a license to do so and before long a drunken guy was slurring rambled nonsense. The moderator said literally nothing after his opening question. I have no idea how it ended – I was one of a sizeable chuck of the audience who just walked out.
Audience interaction can be one of the best parts of an event if handled properly – experiment and see what works for you!
This is the one of several posts about running tech events taken from a talk I gave at OggCamp 2012. I’m not claiming this is the definitive guide on this matter, but hopefully this will give people something to think about and start a conversation.