Tech Conference Speaker Q & A

Nov 15, 2017

By Jamison Dance

Why it might not be such a good idea.

A few months ago there was some chatter on Twitter about Q & A after tech conference talks. The original (well-intentioned) tweets were deleted, but my recollection of them was basically “speakers owe it to attendees to do Q & A. Refusing to do Q & A disrespects the audience.”

I’ve built up some speaker calluses. I never trust the wifi. I test the A/V before I go on stage. I can answer good questions or deflect bad ones without looking stupid. But when I first started speaking Q & A was TERRIFYING. I already thought I wasn’t qualified to speak, but the comforting handrails of my prepared talk gave me something to cling to. Q & A has no handrails beyond the kindness of strangers. It was like declaring open season on my ignorance.

If you haven’t spoken, you are underestimating how nervous the speaker is. Public speaking can be fun and it can be great for your career, but except for a select few it is rarely relaxing. I didn’t have memorable negative experiences with Q & A as a speaker, but I remember the stress. I don’t think that stress made the conference better for anyone.

If you’ve ever attended a conference you’ve likely seen bad Q & A. The three main genres of bad questions are “Hey, do you know how smart I am?”, “Hey, did you know that you are wrong and dumb?”, or “Hey, [incredibly specific problem that you can’t explain in two sentences]?” Something about being handed a microphone and an audience after someone else gives a talk makes it easy to ask terrible questions. Conference speakers are carefully vetted, but Q & A is LIVE BABY which is terrifying.

Q & A also affects diverse speakers differently than white dudes like me. I attended a conference this year that had Q & A. Several women spoke. The Q & A at the women’s talks was SO MUCH WORSE. The questions were more aggressive, show-offy, and confusing than the talks by men. As an attendee, Q & A made my experience worse. At React Rally, the conference I co-organize, we don’t have any Q & A. A fantastic female speaker was 😱 IN THE MIDDLE OF HER TALK 😱 when someone in the audience yelled out a question. I basically became a human 👺 emoji as my soul left my body in disgust. This is not cool, and happens more to women than men.

I think the motivation for Q & A is to help attendees feel more connected with speakers. This is a great thing, but there are more comfortable ways to achieve it. Moderated Q & A is one approach. Screening the questions eliminates low-quality questions, but it still involves unscripted, potentially intimidating performance in front of a crowd. At React Rally we emphasize the hallway track by having tons of breaks throughout the day. Speakers are free to chat with attendees if they choose. They control the experience, which makes it better for everyone. One of my favorite React Rally 2017 moments was seeing speakers and attendees intermixed, excitedly swapping ideas. Talking to a small group is vastly more comfortable, and much easier to opt in to or out of, than being peppered with questions live on stage.

Jamison cares about family and JavaScript programming and React Rally and Soft Skills Engineering and JavaScript Jabber and 🏋️ and 🏂 and computing and business and Fivestack and the Dunning-Kreuger effect. He is a real human bean who you can reach on twitter.