Why have the audience ask questions at a microphone?

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Sunday, February 12, 2017 - 5:21pm

That is a question from Kevin Burke, who emailed it to me rather than going up to a microphone and asking.  His exact wording was “Why don’t we have better formats for soliciting audience feedback than going up in front of a microphone?”

First, I have seen event organizers move away from the questions at a microphone format to some degree.  They prefer either no Q&A, to draw upon written or social media questions, or to conduct the entire event as an interview with a single questioner or panel.  (Personally, I like to receive handwritten questions.)

That said, this format still persists.  The Hansonian point would be that questioning isn’t about questions (or answers!), or however else you might wish to put it.  Rather the point is to show various constituencies that they are being recognized by the process and given some voice.  The more cumbersome and inefficient the questioning period, the more effective this signal may be.  There are, however, problems with this approach, one of them being that the Q&A period can be hijacked by weirdos, rather than remaining the province of the boring drones you wish to placate.   Furthermore, social media-generated questions, if manipulated, may serve the signaling function more directly, as you can ensure that some specific interest group is recognized as doing the asking (“And Mildred, from the teachers union in Ohio, sent in a question about caring for the children…”)

These days there are more and better ways to ask questions than ever before, including of course Reddit and Quora.  That means audience Q&A at the mike is less about information than it used to be.  I predict a kind of bifurcation, in which events either will run away from the format altogether or embrace it all the more firmly, and that is I think what we are seeing.  How about a limiting case for the signaling approach, whereby you invite a famous person, and simply make him or her submit to audience questions, with not even a chance to respond?

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