How to not make people groan during a Q&A

I just got back from Michigan.  Will do a write up of the debate…tomorrow?

Anyway, I’m going to take the rest of the day to catch up on sleep, but first I wanted to give some friendly advice.  I speak a lot, so I do a lot of Q&As.  There are certain behaviors that make everybody else in the room wish their collective glare could disintegrate someone.  I’m here to help you not be that person.  I’m not getting on to anybody, just doing my part to raise awareness.

1.  Questions have a question mark.

It is a question and answer, not your time to lecture the audience.  Last night one of the atheist questioners took the mic, turned to the audience, and started telling them that they were all born atheist.

Was he right?  Yes.  Was that at all appropriate?  No.  Don’t do that.

This is generally done by people who read a cool argument just last week and want to share it, even if it has no relevance at all to the speech/debate that just took place.

2.  No life story.

Even though you had an interesting time at the zoo as a child where you fell into the monkey pit and the monkeys all came down and gave you hugs and you kept in touch with those monkeys throughout your whole adult life and gave them all names and mourned when they died and then met the new monkeys at the zoo that replaced them…

…and that’s why you want to ask the biologist speaker why monkeys have compassion, you should just skip to that question.

3.  Other people want to ask questions, so keep it concise.

There are generally time limits on these events.  Those time limits are in place because the organizers generally only have the room reserved for only so long.  That means that not everybody will get to ask questions and to be polite to all the people in line behind you, you should try to avoid taking three minutes to ask your question.

4.  You are not the second scheduled debate of the night.

If you ask a question and don’t like that answer, write a blog, tell your friends, email the speaker.  Don’t sit there and have your own personal ten minute debate with the speaker when others are waiting to ask questions.

Follow these guidelines and you will make more friends, I promise.

We also need a covert (or overt) signal for when people are doing Q&A wrong so we can at least have solidarity in our aggravation.  Any ideas?

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • IslandBrewer

    But I want you to know the names of all of those monkeys!

    See, there was Bonzo, and Cletus, and Orville, and Eustace, and …

  • Pteryxx

    (c)overt signal: Fingers in ears? Raised thumbs-down? Collective throat-sawing gestures? Oooh I know… anyone impatient starts humming quietly, gradually raising the volume as more and more audience members join in until the background hum drowns the mic-hog out. Bonus: nobody has to *look* like the first person objecting. Creepy!

    …Maybe I do need more sleep. <_<

    • Pteryxx

      Oh… there’s also just having a moderator with a watch and willingness to use it. but y’know, what fun is that.

      • kaboobie

        I highly recommend George Hrab for this task. He did a great job at TAM 9, and he even had a song for the occasion.

  • Kevin

    Air horn.

    Simple, effective, loud, absolute.

    • krispreusker

      Or vuvuzelas!

  • eric

    Excellent advice.

    To would-be questioners: write your questions down beforehand. If you are lazy like me, this tends to keep the unnecessary vebiage to a minimum, since I don’t like to write more than I have to.

  • OmniZ

    Regarding point 4, as an audience member, sometimes a little bit of back and forth is fun to watch, but see point 3.

  • Change


    Don’t do that.

    Death/rape threats any moment now…

    None yet?

    What about now?

    Right, you are not a woman on the Internet.

  • becca

    I was at the debate – JT, you mopped the floor with him.

    The one question I wanted to ask, but had to leave in the middle of the questions and couldn’t, was this: there is such a thing as a scientific consensus. if religion is true, why is there no such thing as a theological consensus?

    or, as my husband phrased it (probably better than I did), how does religion know when it’s in error? What mechanism is there in religion for error correction?

    (the answer to that is, of course, that there is no error correction, there’s only schisms.)

    anyway, you did a good job, and I was glad to be able to see you.

  • sc_1f5f0deea93c89cfc9820ece34aeef45

    Go look up John Scalzi’s comments on moderating panels at conventions. – search on “panel moderation”. I’d post in the links, but I’m running late. Maybe later.

  • Sastra

    Yeah, I was at TAM9 and the video kabooie posted under #2 seemed very effective. I’ve also heard moderators give short speeches on the topic of “What is a Question?” with helpful hints like “It ends with a question mark,” and “it consists of 3 sentences or less” and “it does not start out with ‘I think …’.”

    It also helps I think if the audience is informed that there will be a special session at some point called “Open Mike” for those interested in sharing stories or insights. Hold it on the last day. It’s cheap, easy, and could channel some of the worst offenders into a forum where they can pontificate to each other. Or, it could be the best part of the convention, for some.

    I forget exactly which group did this, but there was once an awards ceremony for scientists who had done unusual or amusing research (the IgNobles maybe?) and they had hired (asked?) an 11-yer-old girl to stand at the end of the stage with a microphone and (presumably) a timer. When any acceptance speech ran over 3 minutes long she would start whining “I’m bored. I’m ….. bored. Iiiiiii’m …sooooo…. boooooored.”

    The audience thought it was hilarious when she demonstrated what the scientists could expect, and I think it was probably either an effective threat — or so amusing when it wasn’t that nobody, even the speaker, really minded.

    • Desert Son, OM

      I forget exactly which group did this . . . (the IgNobles maybe?)

      It is, indeed, the Ig Nobel awards (see the section on the ceremony).

      As a related aside, I think it might liven up debates if moderators got to use hand signals as seen in some sporting events to signal particularly effective arguments, logical fallacy fouling, and so forth.

      To be honest, when atheists hand down a particularly brutal dismantling of a ridiculous theist argument, what I really want to see is someone stand up and smartly, crisply signal for a goal scored in Australian Rules Football.

      Still learning,


      • anthonyallen


        Completely off-topic, incidentally.

        I see more than a few commenters around here with “, OM” after their moniker.

        What does that mean? Are you all some kind of commenting clan, or something?

        • Epinephrine


          The OM is added to signal their induction to the Order of the Molly, an honour bestowed on frequent Pharyngula commenters based on nomination by their peers.

  • baal

    They also have inquisitions!

  • ischemgeek

    ^ Another suggestion for the list: Actually have a freaking question when the mic gets to you. Don’t go, “Erm, I can’t think of a question, but I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed your talk/like your work/[insert other complement here]/[insert insult here].”

    1) it takes up time for other people to ask questions
    2) the audience really doesn’t care what you think of the talk they just watched with you
    and 3) if you want to tell the speaker what you thought of it, there’s usually snacks and drinks after one of these, so go and tell the speaker at the reception. That’s what it’s for.

    I suppose that falls under the “questions have a question mark” thing, but it strikes me as its own sub-category, distinct from the “I have something cool I wanna tell you folks about!” questioners (who as an audience member, I don’t mind so much as long as it’s relevent to what was discussed, they keep it short, and they finish up by asking the speaker what he/she thinks of it).

  • jfxa

    Great advice! Like the gal who asked 6 questions about the brain. Good question, but the wrong way to do it.

    Thanks again for the debate. I really enjoyed meeting you. Let me know the next time you come near the area. I’d love to grab a drink or sing Karaoke.

    It really meant allot that you spoke up when that questioner looked like he was to going wax on and on and get obnoxious. You made my first debate not as bad as it could have been. Thanks also for pointing out that one of the quotes was not accurate as well. I will get it corrected.

    I heard allot of good feedback. The SSA leaders did an excellent job organizing and being so hospitable.

  • Janie

    I was in Ann Arbor on Wednesday and I have a low threshold for rude, boorish or stupid behavior. I think the Q & A went very well. People get excited and these things aren’t scripted. Questioners did fine on both sides. Speaking on behalf of the over-fifty crowd, the guy with the moustache wasn’t out of line in my book. This was a special event for the audience. I don’t think most of us looked at the debate the way you did. We enjoyed it! Maybe you are getting a little jaded, JT.

  • Sally60

    Janie, I am over 50 and you do not speak for me. Good guidelines, JT. I really enjoyed the debate.

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