Q&A segments at a live event are a valuable point of connection where attendees have the opportunity to gain the undivided attention of the speaker or panelist and get answers to important questions. Inevitably, people who abuse the format can lower the quality of the experience for everyone. A Twitter thread addressing this chronic problem is gaining momentum today following the conclusion of WordCamp Europe 2023.
“One problem is that they often add very little value – although they’re supposed to achieve the opposite,” WordPress Core Committer Felix Arntz said. “Unfortunately, those who ‘ask’ are often telling stories, promoting themselves or their business, [or] mansplaining the speaker.
“Sometimes they’re not even asking any question at the end which is ridiculous. If that is you, you may not even notice it, but you are seriously wasting people’s time, potentially harming the speaker, and preventing folks from actually learning something.”
Arntz suggested that those asking questions longer than a minute should forego the Q&A time and ask the speaker informally at a later opportunity if it is relevant.
“Just to clarify, while some of the issues apply especially to sessions with more exposure, like a Matt Q&A, they all also apply to any other session,” he said.
“While these problems mostly occur due to individual folks in the audience, I think the WordCamp organization needs to take action to improve the situation as it’s been happening for years.”
Arntz proposed a number of actionable ideas, including submitting questions to a central platform where they can be upvoted by community members, discarding lengthy questions, and providing mandatory training or documentation for emcees on how to handle problematic Q&A situations. He also noted that having questions in writing can assist non-native English speakers in understanding other non-native speakers.
Arntz also contends that Q&A should be optional, depending on the speaker’s preference. This may also have the added effect of creating a more inclusive environment for speakers.
“Particularly for new speakers, it can cause lots of distress or anxiety, especially because, as mentioned before, it very often isn’t questions but any of the aforementioned problems,” he said.
“All of this can be another blocker for folks from underrepresented groups to even apply to speak, which came up in the session on women & non-binary folx of WordPress.
“Making Q&A optional is a great and simple way to at least improve the latter issue while working on addressing all the other problems. It’s literally just a decision to make, so I urge the community and organizing teams to make it.”
Arntz’s thread has received positive feedback and support, and other WCEU attendees have joined in with suggestions for improving the Q&A format.
“Many other open source conferences use apps that do more with Q&A, rating speakers, and even helping attendees schedule networking,” GoDaddy Developer Advocate Courtney Robertson said. “The favorited events export to iCal/gCal.”
Raymon Mens, a first-time-attendee at WCEU, said he was “negatively surprised by the Q&A part” for every session. “I would have preferred some more time for the speaker to go more in depth and not have a long Q&A that doesn’t add a lot.”
Jon Ang, an organizer for WordCamp Asia, said he is taking Arntz’s feedback into consideration for their next event, and future global leads for WCEU said they are also discussing these ideas for next year.
“At WordCamp San Francisco 2011 there was a Q&A session with Barry and it used a P2,” WordPress core committer Aaron Jorbin said. “For the off topic questions, others often chimed in. I think an MC with knowledge of the subject matter asking questions off this would be perfect.”
Changes will likely originate from WordCamp organizers who can recognize the existing problems with the current Q&A format and depart from tradition with a better way of bringing quality questions to speakers who wish to entertain them. Getting Q&A right may also become a stronger priority as WordPress’ community team evolves the WordCamp format to promote adoption, training, and networking. Based on the feedback on Arntz’s Twitter thread, it’s past time to update the Q&A format and WordCampers are eager to see it happen.