How to Behave at a Q&A

Tender lumplings everywhere, I have something important to share with you.

It’s convention season. I enjoyed myself immensely at both BayCon 2017 and the annual Bay Area Book Festival (BABF). I was reminded at both that some folks have very bad habits when attending panel discussions and other events.

I have personally witnessed each of these missteps, so I’m gonna provide some examples. I am here to tell you to not do any of these things when the time rolls around and the moderator opens up the floor to questions from the audience.

  • Do not ask questions that have an answer you could easily Google. Come on. You know the internet is a thing, right? Do you really want a whole auditorium to stare at you while they parse out whether you’re an asshole, or an idiot, or both?
  • Do not ramble about your pet peeve for five minutes and then ask, “What do you think about that,” as though it were a real question. A good way to realize that you’re doing this is when a moderator stops you midway through your ramble and asks what the question is. When this happens, do not have the FUCKING GALL to tell them to be patient while you get to it. Pro tip: THINK first. Then talk. Maybe write down what you want to ask and get it succinct before you demand a microphone.
  • Do not ask bad faith questions because you want to make someone uncomfortable or provoke them into a reaction. A dude at a panel of all fat women at BABF thought it would be fun to pose a hypothetical question about a utopian future where they could all choose to remake themselves in the obviously more perfect image of thinner bodies. It was shitty and I was glad to see him get shut down by Sonya Renee Taylor. Other bad faith questions include anything about ‘promoting obesity,’ ‘reverse racism,’ or any kind of demand that the person with the mic prove they’re worthy of your attention.
  • Do not pretend to be a panelist. Q & A does not mean you now get a chance to introduce yourself, promote your own work, or hold forth on either affirmation or rebuttal of what’s been said. Get on your own panel. This one is not yours. Ask a question or shut the fuck up. Nobody came to hear you.
  • Do not ask a question that has already been answered. For the love of all the gods, don’t preface your question with “I came in late, so maybe this has already been answered.” You’re wasting everybody’s time and the panelists are going to roll their eyes at you internally.
  • Do not ask the panel why your life isn’t working. This one is hard, I know. You might have shown up to see your lifelong hero speak, and you’re pretty sure they know what you should do about your very specific problems. Tragically, they don’t. I’ve seen people ask questions of rock stars and writers and politicians that can only be answered by therapists, social workers, and doctors. I really hope you get the help you need, but I can promise you you’re not going to get it in a concert hall.
  • If the moderator has just said that we have time for one more question, do not open with the fact that you actually have two questions. Kill your darlings, darling. You only get one. Make the call.
  • Do not ask the panelists to go out with you. Or marry you. Or read your novel. Or why they broke up with you. Yes, I have seen these things happen. The results range for hilarity at your expense to terror and your removal by security.
  • Ask yourself whether your question actually has an answer. As a frequent panelist and speaker, I’ve been asked to predict the future, restructure our electoral process, defend Margaret Sanger, read minds, give advice on shit I’ve never done, and speculate on the possibility of life after death. This kind of question often comes from someone who thinks they’re giving a speaker an opportunity to be clever, or reveal something about themselves. It’s advanced work, and it’s done best in one on one interviews. At very best, you’re going to get a joke answer. Most of the time, you’re getting a shrug.

I’ve seen good moderators shut down time-burglars and trolls. I’ve seen Q&A practices that ensure that women and people of color get a chance to ask questions first. I’ve seen everybody get better at this as I’ve gone to more events.

However, these things still happen. Each of these things happened before my very eyes in the last two weeks. This still needs to be said.

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