(First published, December 2002)
A couple of weeks ago, my friend Mike Molenda invited me to address his group. A couple of days before the session, he sent me a list of questions collected from people who were planning to attend my presentation. This list provided valuable information about the needs of the audience and I eagerly got ready to review, organize, and sequence the questions. I realized, however, that the result is likely to reflect my priorities rather than the priorities of the audience. To avoid this (and to justify my laziness), I designed an interactive lecture format called Selected Questions in which audience members take on additional responsibilities to increase their feelings of ownership and accountability.
A list of questions (generated before the presentation) is reviewed, organized, and prioritized by audience members. You begin your presentation by answering the question selected by most participants. You repeat the process by responding to “popular” questions that are successively selected by the listeners.
This interactive lecture format is especially useful when
- Your audience members represent different areas of interest and levels of knowledge.
- Your audience members have equal opportunity to contribute questions.
- The presentation requires a broad survey of a topical area.
- You are willing to let go of the control of the session.
Prepare a list of questions. Type up the questions collected by the organizers. Sort the list in alphabetical order to ensure a random sequence of questions. Number each question in serial order. Review the questions to get a feel for audience levels of interest and knowledge.
Distribute the list of questions. Give a copy of the list to each participant.
Explain what you are planning to do and why you are doing it. Point out that it is neither feasible nor desirable for you respond to all the questions in the list. Instead of arbitrarily deciding which questions to answer, you are going to entrust the responsibility to a group of experts: the participants themselves. Although this process will require some time, it will be a worthwhile investment that will ensure return of relevance to participants.
Ask participants to review the questions. Invite them to eliminate these categories of questions:
- Rhetorical question for which the answer is obvious
- Smart-aleck questions that are designed to show off the questioner's sophistication
- Trivial questions that do not add value to the listeners
- Factual questions that are answered in reference books or online resources
- Idiosyncratic questions that are of relevance to only a few individuals
- Redundant questions that repeat other questions (or are subsumed under broader questions) in the list
Pause for a few minutes while participants complete this task.
Ask participants to select the first question. After a suitable pause, ask participants to review remaining questions and independently select the question they would like for you to answer first. This question should be a basic one that would contribute to a better understanding of subsequent questions.
Conduct an informal poll. Ask participants to shout out the identifying number of the question that they want to nominate as the first one to be answered. Encourage participants with same preferences to congregate together and outshout the others. After a few moments' chaos, decide the most “popular” first question by asking participants to raise their hands as you call out each of the loudly nominated numbers.
Respond to the question. Keep your presentation brief and to the point. Encourage participants to listen carefully and to take notes.
Pause for reflection. After your response, ask participants to individually jot down a single sentence that captures and summarizes the most important point from your presentation.
Identify the next question. Ask participants to review other questions in the list. Point out that the importance of specific questions might have increased or decreased as a result of your previous response. Repeat the earlier informal polling to identify the next question to be answered.
Repeat the process. Answer the second question and pause for personalized summaries. Poll participants to identify the next question to be answered.
Generate more questions. Set aside the last 5 minutes for participants to write questions that should have been in the original list but were not. Collect these questions and briefly answer one or two of them. Tell participants that you will post brief answers to the remaining questions in your website. Make this promise only if you plan to fulfill it. Alternatively, offer to answer the remaining questions during your next guest appearance.
What if you have too many questions from the audience? Randomly select about 15 questions and type them up in your list. Explain to participants that the list contains a representative sample.
What if some critical questions are left out? This feeling usually arises from megalomania on your part. Add your “critical” questions to the list. Confess to participants that you have added a few questions but do not identify which ones are yours. Serves you right if your questions get eliminated or ignored by participants.
What if nobody collected questions from the audience beforehand? Prepare your own list of frequently-asked questions and use it instead. Be sure to include some naïve, trivial, redundant, and smart-aleck questions in the list.
What if some participants are upset because their question did not get answered? Invite them to email their questions to you.
What if you don't want to type all the questions? Ask the organizer to type up the questions and send it to you by email. You can create and modify the list any way you want to. Alternatively, request participants to email the questions directly to you. You can then copy and paste the questions to a single list.