Is it smart or shameful to manufacture Q&A?

Make Up Q&A

Dear Corporate Poet & Cutter of C.R.A.P.:

After all these months of practice, we’re finally pretty comfortable with virtual meetings. Everyone has figured out how to join a call on almost any platform, most have full command of the mute button, and only a handful are still reluctant to turn on the camera. In small groups, our teams are collaborating pretty well, actually.

But when it comes to larger meetings where leaders present and then leave time for Q&A,  people still don’t want to ask questions. At our last town hall, we got just three questions via chat, and two were about a change in our payroll process. Not exactly what our executives had in mind.

I’m determined to liven up the Q&A. Is it okay to make up questions and put them in the queue? Can I do that?

Willing To Cheat If I Have To

Dear Willing:

Making up questions isn’t cheating. It can be a strategic way to anticipate what your audience wants to know—and what your presentation team needs to share.  So let’s drop the notion that you are contemplating something underhanded. Your objective isn’t to “cheat,” it’s to generate questions, clarity, and conversation.

With that mindset, you can aim higher than merely “making up questions.” You can become an advocate for the presenters (who want their messages heard) and the audience (who want to make sense of those messages).

Whether you think of yourself as an interviewer, moderator, or manager of the microphone, here are some techniques you might choose to stimulate discussion.

Connect the dots.

If your audience just endured a barrage of priorities, problems, and progress, Q&A is an opportunity to help make sense of those points. As moderator, you can ask questions like these:

  • Given everything you just shared, what’s the one thing that has you most excited and/or concerned, and why?
  • How has your thinking been influenced by [the pandemic/the economy/our competition]?
  • One year from now, what do you hope to be sharing with this group?

“Q” the presenters.

One of my favorite approaches is to ask leaders, “What’s something you wish people would ask you right now?” You can ask this 1:1 while preparing for the event, or on the spot in front of the audience. Choose your moment by considering the meeting’s subject matter, your rapport with the leader, and your leader’s mood and comfort with improvisation. Or do both: tee up the question in rehearsal, and if it works, plan for it as part of live Q&A. This gives your presenter a chance to ponder and practice.

Call on yourself.

What questions do YOU have? Organizing or facilitating a big virtual meeting can consume your brain. But chances are, you’re a legit member of the audience as well. So, find a few seconds—before or during the event—to jot down your own, honest questions. By raising one of those questions, you’ll model the very behavior you want others to follow. Your honest curiosity may be the icebreaker everyone needs. Bonus: you’ll get an answer to your question!

Think “what’s next.”

I hope when Q&A concludes, your presenter plans to close with a strong call to action. Q&A is rarely the high note that will send an audience away feeling energized, motivated, or optimistic. So, plan a closing question to guide your presenter straight into that action-oriented conclusion. Some possibilities:

  • If you were in the audience today, thinking about everything we just saw and heard, what would you be preparing to do next?
  • For those of us who are eager to achieve the kind of results you’ve described, what’s a good first step? How to begin?
  • If you could write a to-do list for everyone listening, what would you list as number one?

Livelier Q&A sessions are in your future, if you’re willing to do this kind of strategic planning. Notice I said planning, not planting. Please don’t craft questions and then hand them off to audience members to ask as if they were their own. That’s inconsistent with the culture of engagement you’re trying to create. Be a role model for courage and curiosity. Can you do that? Yes you can!

The Corporate Poet & Cutter of C.R.A.P.

P.S. Let’s not ignore the cold, hard truth.

The fact that you aren’t getting questions might signal that the presentations don’t match what the audience expects, wants, or needs. Leaders may see town halls and all-hands meetings as their moment to communicate performance and relay new goals; but employees often feel disconnected from those metrics. If your approach to these meetings stays stuck in “the way we’ve always done it,” your audience’s level of engagement is likely to stay stuck there, too.

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