Why have the audience ask questions at a microphone?

by on February 12, 2017 at 3:19 pm in Education, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

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?

1 Don Reba February 12, 2017 at 3:34 pm

> And Mildred, from the teachers union in Ohio, sent in a question about caring for the children…

Mildred asks: “Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?!”

2 The Other Jim February 12, 2017 at 7:03 pm

Clearly, nothing would be better for the children than making it illegal to fire bad teachers.

Yay, teachers’ unions!

3 Sam February 12, 2017 at 3:34 pm

I like the way the Seminars About Long-term Thinking, organized by Stewart Brand, do the Q&A. Handwritten questions, read out by the host/moderator (Brand, who sometimes spins them in more interesting ways or adds color), after presumably being curated by the minions collecting them during the talk.

4 Cory February 13, 2017 at 7:52 pm

I came to post a similar comment. A lot of the time someone familiar with the talk is spending the entire duration of the talk collecting and cataloging the written questions. The interlocutor spends QA time asking the broad question ands uses the written questions as direct quotes. This can end up being better then the original talk as the context of the audience at SALT is deeply interesting.

Our hosts own Talks with Tyler method seems simpler to run if only as it requires one less person familiar enough with the content of the talk to process the questions and run the QA portion.

5 Odoacer February 12, 2017 at 3:37 pm

One practical reasons is acoustics. I’ve attended talkes with no microphone for audience questions and it can be very difficult to hear them, given that the asker is facing and speaking away from most of the audience. If the main speaker is good, he will repeat the question. However, many times he doesn’t, so I don’t know exactly what was asked.

If there’s not going to be any audience interaction, then why have an audience? Just release a transcript or video from a private meeting. People can peruse it much faster and submit any questions they have via email.

6 bluto February 12, 2017 at 3:46 pm

It’s also impossible to hear unmic’d audience questions on any sort of recording (while microphones allow electronic audience to hear both question and answer).

7 Mark Thorson February 12, 2017 at 4:45 pm

I worked for Ted Selker at IBM Almaden, and he had a clever solution to that. He had a Nerf football in which a lightweight wireless microphone was installed. You’d throw the football at the speaker, and he or she would speak into the football, then throw it back when finished. Problems were that it was unfamiliar so people would not necessarily speak into where the microphone was, and the electronics were not terribly reliable probably from being knocked around so much.

8 The Other Jim February 12, 2017 at 7:04 pm

Also, girls can’t throw footballs. So they are Effectively Silenced.

9 Thiago Ribeiro February 12, 2017 at 7:43 pm

But they can pull the ball away.

10 Tim Holladay February 13, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Some cool European guys made getcatchbox.com which is the production version of the Nerf football you describe. They added tech that mutes the microphone when it mid air and being caught. Pretty cool.

11 Tim Holladay February 13, 2017 at 1:54 pm

My commenting here will come off as self-serving. Not my intention. I’m a guy who experienced the challenge of hearing questions and comments from the audience and wondered why we don’t use our phones as microphones. Very long story short, we built a platform that powers Q&A by turning phones into microphones. Crowd Mics also allows for curated text questions and live polls. My point in posting is that I have dedicated my life to solving this exact problem and appreciate that others share the frustration and hope for a solution.

12 John S. February 12, 2017 at 3:39 pm

I have an old New Yorker cartoon — which I’ve actuallly used as the last slide in presentations — in which the moderator states “We will now open the floor to shorter presentations disguised as questions”.

13 byomtov February 12, 2017 at 4:10 pm

Yes. This is a major problem with floor questions.

14 Mark Thorson February 12, 2017 at 4:49 pm

When I was a college student, I heard about an incident in which a student got up and said “I have a dumb question . . .” And the professor interrupted and said “There are no dumb questions. There are dishonest questions designed to show how much the speaker knows, but there are no dumb questions.”

15 Tim Holladay February 13, 2017 at 1:55 pm

As a guy who is obsessed with solving this problem, this is one of the funniest and most validating cartoons I’ve seen!

16 Mark Thorson February 12, 2017 at 10:17 pm
17 Mark Thorson February 12, 2017 at 10:27 pm
18 lakewood February 12, 2017 at 3:59 pm

‘Kevin Burke’ specified audience “feedback”, but Tyler sees that word as meaning only “questions”

“…that the Q&A period can be hijacked by weirdos, rather than remaining the province of the boring drones you wish to placate.” —- sounds similar to Tyler’s stated view that most of the comments here at MR are low quality.

It’s not what yousay that counts— it’s what they hear

19 Thomas February 12, 2017 at 5:51 pm

A high quality comment informs and persuades whereas a high quality question suggests and provokes. These are very different skills. In my perception, the only reason to step away from direct and unknown questions is a presenter’s desire to control narrative. It’s a cowardly desire.

20 Post-Truth Politics February 12, 2017 at 7:06 pm

I agree.

If written questions are submitted and then a few are chosen, you don’t get a random sample. You may get only those questions that flatter the viewpoints of the presenter and/or the moderator, or whoever did the choosing.

The issue of getting hijacked by weirdos is a real one. Moderators need to learn to set limits on that and go to the next questioner after a certain amount of time wasted there.

If you have a presenter who is fairly open, submitted questions can be good. But you don’t always have that.

21 Ray Lopez February 12, 2017 at 4:27 pm

I have a related question: what’s the point of having open comments in blogs, relatively unmoderated, so every Tom, Harry & Dick can have its say? Why not do like Brad G. DeLong and Nicholas G. Mankiw, and close comments, so the trolls don’t get in? Or is the point of unmoderated comments, like at Scott G. Sumner’s blog and here, simply signaling? Or are there more commercial reasons for unmoderated comments, like getting people to engage more with a blog, so the …ahem…authors of said blog make money, like tens of thousands of dollars if not close to six figures from Google AdSense? Enquiring minds want to know…I want to know.

22 Anonymous February 12, 2017 at 4:50 pm

There is a sense of community that builds up in blogs such as this.

If there are no Ads , how does the blog make money? The only ads are for books written by TC and AT and one for MRUniversity.

23 prior_test2 February 13, 2017 at 12:14 am

‘how does the blog make money’

This web site is not about making money for two tenured GMU econ dept. professors, and never has been.

24 Turkey Vulture February 12, 2017 at 5:10 pm

I like to think Tyler believes in the value of free and open discourse as a matter of principle.

25 prior_test2 February 13, 2017 at 12:15 am

No he doesn’t – there are a number of facts he is actively uninterested in having his readers learn.

26 Bill February 12, 2017 at 5:36 pm

Speaking on behalf of Tom, Dick and Harry, I think, Ray, what you miss is that one way communication is different than two way communication. You may be thinking that the only communication is to other who read the blog, but what you miss also is that the writer of the blog receives communication from the audience as well. Furthermore, knowing that someone is looking over your shoulder may also moderate the post because it may be embarrassing for an author (and a commenter as well, let’s be honest) to see where they have been wrong, were biased, or failed to include some relevant information.

27 Post-Truth Politics February 12, 2017 at 7:09 pm

Yes, the comments inform the blogger. How else would Tyler and Alex figure out that there are so many Alt Right people who consider Tyler and Alex Lefties, because they are to the Left of Attila the Hun. They probably didn’t know that before they read it here in the comments section.

28 anon February 12, 2017 at 7:56 pm

Kinda weird that so few old school libertarians “grab the mike” in MR comments these days.

[Trump adviser Stephen] Miller on judges: “Our opponents [will] see, as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president…will not be questioned”


Funny that MR “comments” is kind of a libertarian ghost town, in response to such things.

29 too hot for MR February 12, 2017 at 8:17 pm

I feel I’m pretty consistently libertarian. The things that horrified me about Bush didn’t seem particularly different under Obama. “Yes we can torture” gave way to “yes we’ll drone strike freely and we’ll savage whistleblowers.” TSA, warrantless data collection, etc, all unabated.

Now I see a guy who wants to slash regulation and taxes and let people have their guns, and everyone is shrieking “tyrant” and “fascist.” We’ll see, but so far the hysterics seem unfounded.

30 anon February 12, 2017 at 9:01 pm

What a weird claim. We pulled back from torture. It did not “give way to” drone strikes. Drone strikes have a deeper history, with random air strikes or naval bombardment moving to the new tech.

This is the kind of thing that moved to drones:


Or this


Regardless, it is just nuts to stare a claim unlimited Presidential power in the face and say “at least I’ll get tax cuts.”

31 Chip February 12, 2017 at 9:42 pm

Yep, because nothing says “unlimited presidential power” like cutting the government’s power to tax and regulate, a Supreme Court nominee with a record of opposition to executive overreach, the appointment of assertive and independent people to cabinet, congressional term limits and an aversion to waging foreign wars.

Anon, your ability to see everything completely upside down is the gift that keeps on giving. And giving, and giving …

32 anon February 12, 2017 at 10:05 pm

Are you even aware of the Neil Gorsuch “demoralizing” and the Trump “no, he didn’t say that” two-step?

33 Turkey Vulture February 12, 2017 at 11:10 pm

anon just throws whatever shit he finds at the wall of the comments section to see what sticks. He has been providing the approved anti-Trump talking point of the day for what must be a year or more now, and demands that people either justify or denounce it. He recently discovered the importance of civil asset forfeiture because Trump seems to be for it, and so now he is out to get all those libertarians who are failing to see that Trump is basically Hitler.

34 too hot for MR February 13, 2017 at 1:04 am

The single most devastating piece of information I’ve heard about Trump is that Piers Morgan is on his side.

35 anon February 13, 2017 at 9:22 am

Maybe, the worrying thing is that solid bad news does appear every day, sometimes a few times a day. That should worry you more than that an anonymous commentator calls attention to it.

Just maybe.

36 appraiser of the arts February 12, 2017 at 4:45 pm

most living things, work for profit, base context for adam smith’s WON

37 appraiser of the arts February 12, 2017 at 4:46 pm

no utopia there, but things as they are, enlightenment dialogue; sometimes accessible, sometimes not, due to pragmatic necessity.

38 appraiser of the arts February 12, 2017 at 4:48 pm

is there a transcript handy?

39 Millian February 12, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Only live Q&A exposes the witness to potential bouleversement. Any curation lets the organisers and recipient conspire, or play a repeated-game of mutual protection. Reddit (and Reddit questions) can be ignored without social penalty. Quora seems not to elicit expertise at all.

40 Thomas February 12, 2017 at 5:58 pm

Additionally, Reddit moderation and sub-reddit shopping provide much curation in the presenter’s favor.

41 Pipsterate February 12, 2017 at 7:11 pm


42 tt February 12, 2017 at 7:16 pm

but anyway, lets bring this back to Rampart.

43 RM February 12, 2017 at 5:18 pm

Seems like a fair way to do it. People have to walk up to the microphone, so there is a first-in-line, first-question fairness to it. Otherwise, someone walks around (or throws as in the above examples) with a microphone and chooses who gets to ask questions.

44 Bill February 12, 2017 at 5:39 pm

I would like to see, instead of the microphone being passed around, written questions being submitted.

But, I would have someone other than the speaker choose the questions. In fact, you could randomly assign people to choose the questions from the written questions to be asked of the speaker.

When the speaker selects the questions the speaker has too much power. What looks like an open discussion isn’t…its just a continuation of the speech.

45 too hot for MR February 12, 2017 at 6:05 pm

How else would we get such joys as Milston Friedman vs. a young Michael Moore?


46 too hot for MR February 12, 2017 at 6:08 pm

er…Milton rather

47 Faze February 12, 2017 at 6:41 pm

When you get to the end of your question period, and you look at the clock and realize that, contrary to what you thought, you in fact have time for one more question from the audience — do not take that question. Quit while you’re ahead.

48 Todd K February 12, 2017 at 6:59 pm

As Trump tried to do with his press conference with Abe even though it was Abe’s turn to ask one more, which he did.

49 Ted Craig February 12, 2017 at 6:55 pm

First, it’s a lot more efficient. There’s no, “Could you please repeat the question, we didn’t hear it.”

Second, it makes for better recordings.

50 nailed it February 12, 2017 at 8:02 pm

Yes, a microphone is much better than tin cans and a string.

51 Long time listener, first time caller February 12, 2017 at 7:01 pm

This is a good tool I’ve seen used at academic conferences. Anyone in the room can post a question, and the audience votes for the ones they most want answered.

52 Post-Truth Politics February 12, 2017 at 7:11 pm

Now that’s a good idea. If the audience votes, that is more representative of the range of possible questions, than if the presenter or moderator chose.

53 Donald Pretari February 12, 2017 at 7:18 pm

“Rather the point is to show various constituencies that they are being recognized by the process and given some voice.”

Hell, one person could do that just by changing hats and accents.

54 steveslr February 12, 2017 at 7:50 pm

When I was a student at Rice U. in the 1970s, one of my duties was to go to dinner parties and lectures with visiting celebrities and jump in with general interest questions when a questioner started haranguing the lecturer with a rant about his private obsession. For example, when a professor started a 5 minute “question” for Malcolm Muggeridge about some point of Catholic doctrine, I jumped in with “Mr. Muggeridge, you knew George Orwell. Can you tell us a little about what he was like?”

55 Donald Pretari February 12, 2017 at 7:58 pm

I’ve always assumed that’s why they have two microphones, so that, if someone begins to give a speech, you shut that microphone off and go across the room.

56 Donald Pretari February 12, 2017 at 7:52 pm

Clearly, we need a question like “What on Earth gives you the idea that you have the right or are qualified to comment on this blog?” In my case it’s having the time.

57 Steve February 12, 2017 at 8:01 pm

Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted.

58 byomtov February 12, 2017 at 9:37 pm

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.

No.That’s not true. No one knows what idiot is going to grab the mike and make a speech. So the intent can’t be to let all constituencies be heard.

Second, of course the questions aren’t about the questions. Anyone who has ever been to a talk knows this. To claim that noting this is evidence of Hansonian genius is just foolish. You guys really need to get over yourselves.

59 John February 13, 2017 at 1:27 am

I seem to recall the Econonist hosting an event in NYC where they solicited three audience questions at a time and the moderator chose the best one, and the speakers have some liberty to cover points they desired. That seemed to work well.

60 Axa February 13, 2017 at 8:17 am


In college I collaborated in the organization of a couple student’s events with guest speakers. The interesting thing for a collaborator was making questions or learning from the speakers while having lunch or picking them up from the airport. The whole event was a tool used by organizers to do networking.

It took a while to understand this. I would have liked to have a mentor who have told me this before: speakers prepare their talk the night before, half of the audience is asleep, audience’s questions are most of time stupid but the objective here is networking…..mind the failures.

61 Frederik Marain February 13, 2017 at 11:33 am

Or this? “Engage Your Audience with Catchbox, the World’s First Soft Throwable Microphone. Make your next Conference … more engaging and fun with the first microphone designed for audience participation. Instead of slowly passing around a stick microphone, simply throw the soft Catchbox!”
I’ve seen it work a while ago at a conference and it surely adds some drama and excitement to the Q&A

62 Ryan T February 14, 2017 at 7:56 pm

“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.”

Can’t the same be said of a blog’s comments section?

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