I managed to catch the final lecture of William Lane Craig’s “Reasons for Hope” tour of Ireland. The venue was Assembly Buildings in Belfast city centre, home of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. The event was managed by Christian Unions Ireland and attracted several hundred people. It wasn’t a debate or a hard-headed philosophical lecture. It was a popular level apologetics talk, pitched to interested lay-people. Still, Craig was engaging and easy to listen to. He’s undoubtedly a fantastic communicator, whatever you think of his philosophy. Sadly he only spoke for around 45 minutes of the event, the rest of the 1.25 hours being dedicated to Q & A. What a disaster.
Seriously. It was a train wreck. It was so bad that I confess I left half-way through and went home. Every Q & A cliché was on display. The guy who has a rambling speech to deliver. The guy who can’t quite turn his incoherent thoughts into a question. The guy who asks his simple question in such a convoluted way that no-one – not even Craig with two doctorates – can understand it. It’s maddening. Here we were with one of the most influential Christian philosophers at our disposal but instead we were having to listen to Joe Bullplop rambling about cosmic nihilism, or Jimmy Whattheheck trying to make some point about humans being pleasure seeking animals (or perhaps, as another attendee suggested, it was “pattern seeking,” I have no idea. The point is – it was about a clear as dirty dishwater).
I assume these people have come to this event because they have at least some interest in philosophy. Why, then, can they not ask a simple question? Why do they even struggle to form a coherent sentence? Don’t they know I’m not interested in their brain vomit? Is it stupidity? Arrogance? What inspires them to embarrass themselves with a mind fart in front of several hundred people? It’s painful to watch.
It’s utterly unnecessary too. It’s about time we clamped down on it. Far too many perfectly decent events are ruined by badly handled Q & A sessions. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Never have an “open mic.” If you do, there is no quality control at all. You’re leaving yourself open to every swivel-eyed loon who thinks he has something important to add to the debate.
2. Lots of well-meaning people can become unstuck and tongue-tied when they suddenly hear their voice magnified across an auditorium. Insist they write their question down and read it.
3. If you want to help the people above, have their question checked by an assistant before they ask it. If it doesn’t make sense to the assistant, it probably won’t make sense to others. Time to rethink and rewrite.
4. Even better – have questions written down and submitted beforehand. This way the best and most relevant questions can be picked out rather than prioritising questions based on who had the balls to get up in front of a microphone first.
5. Don’t be afraid to embarrass people publically. Yes, it might be cruel, but it’s time to stop tolerating incoherent babble. Cut people off if you have to. Tell them to take a seat to get their thoughts together and try again later. Tell them they have 10 seconds to get their question out or they lose the mic. Not only do you cut short their nonsense, you also put off others tempted to do the same.
6. Here’s a rule I recommend you announce to the audience: if you can’t ask your question in a single short sentence don’t get to your feet until you can. If your question takes a paragraph of explanation, then this Q & A isn’t for you.
7. It might be cheating, but it’s not always a bad idea to have a few audience “plants.” These are people who have been primed with questions to ask beforehand. It helps get the Q & A off to a good start and sets the tone.
8. Insist – with no exceptions – that the questions relate to the topic of the evening. If they don’t, cut the person off and move on.
9. Normally during a Q & A there is a chairperson controlling the event. This role is absolutely crucial – not only for 1-8 above, but also to save a dying Q & A session. If it’s falling flat he or she should intervene to ask a few questions in and around the topic, turning the Q & A into an interview for a brief time.
10. Don’t think the Q & A time is a time when the hard work is done and you can just sit back and relax. Q & A can make the difference between an audience member staying and praising your event or going home and writing a disgruntled blog post about it.
Stephen J Graham