A very common format for events is keynote speaker followed by ‘Q and A with the audience’. I have not hosted Q and As after a conference speech of mine since 2018. Why? They kill the mood faster than a minute’s silence for the Queen.
That’s a true story. In 2023 I gave a speech for 300 top-performing sales people at Uluru – one of the best locations for conferencing in the world. There is something very special about the vibe at Uluru in the central desert of Australia. It’s something I can’t explain properly but I can feel it, like a vibration. It’s a very special place.
At the end of my speech in this very special place, I received a long, genuine standing ovation after I left my audience exactly where I wanted them: feeling motivated and inspired, ready to take action and conquer. Then I left the stage to make for the book signing table and the MC hosted a minute’s silence for the dearly departed monarch. I have never seen a room go from ten-out-of-ten, top-of-the-world, smiles-all-round, whoop-whoop-whoo to flat-as-a-pancake in under five seconds.
Q and A sessions are almost as bad. Your speaker works their tail off to take the audience on a collective journey, then leave them feeling on top of the world, informed, entertained, challenged and energised. Conference directors want to bottle that stuff: the feeling you create in a room full of humans with a speaker in the cockpit who has brought the room together skillfully and landed the vibe like a jumbo jet. You’ve paid that speaker a bundle of cash, sometimes they have even traveled across the world to deliver that speech which creates an in-person sizzle for those specific delegates. The fastest way to dissipate that hard-earned energy is to allow a change in format which gives the mic to random people who are game to ask a question.
When you move the format from keynote to Q and A, the following tends to happen, pretty much in this order:
- The audience has been so thoroughly wowed that they are stunned into a post-keynote pleasure zone and no one can think of a question while their brains are busy going ‘wow’, so instead you host an awkward silence.
- Curated or planted questions can be spotted a mile off as lacking in authenticity and the audience starts to assess their phones for a better use of their time.
- Someone scrapes up a question from the bottom of their metaphorical conference tote bag that is irrelevant to almost everyone else in the room and we all waste each other’s time a little more.
- The class gronk asks a question designed to embarrass or show up your dear speaker just for the sport of it, like the time someone asked me if I was related to Astro Boy. His colleagues groaned and I said ‘No, I come from a long line of Troll Dolls’ and the laugh was on him.
- The awky silences between each question, using a traveling microphone which is now like a ball-shaped petri dish hosting the collective germs of the room, conspires to murder off the hard-earned positive atmosphere. Silence is a mood killer. Gone, faster than a toupe in a hurricane.
So that’s why I don’t do Q and As after my keynotes and neither should you. Here are some alternative formats to go from keynote to the next thing.
- Recap the speaker with first class humour. Take the top three memorable moments and turn them into jokes that further the collective experience. Only a killer MC can do this with flair.
- Have your MC facilitate group sharing for a few minutes where delegates can share the most important take-home points from the speech they just heard with the three or four people sitting close to them. Choose a few groups to elect a spokesperson and report back to the whole room on their unforgettable pearlers. This will galvanize the collective experience of that speech as a memorable and relatable one.
- Go straight to lunch or afternoon tea. Let ‘em out of the room to caffeinate and recap that experience with their cohort.
- Host a book signing so that your people can meet the speaker, take pics and keep the continuum of the positive vibe in that room going for as long as possible. The best events give every delegate a copy of the speaker’s latest book or a book pack for an Oprah moment where ‘everyone gets a booooook!’ which is a lot of fun.
Conference professionals work hard to create memorable events, right? Speakers do a brilliant job delivering memorable, experiential content. Now you have my recommendations for replacing Q and As after killer keynotes with a much better next step that harnesses the energy in the room rather than murdering it.