How to “crowd enforce” the two-sentence-question rule

Inspired by this article, a recent meat-space event and this awesome blog post about group dynamics in meetings and “collective incompetence”, I wrote this yesterday on a train journey. I am self-censoring bits, but they aren’t “mission critical”…

Why the two sentence rule matters, and how we can “enforce” it

We’ve all been there. The speaker finishes speeching. Then the chair asks the audience for questions. Up shoot the usual hands. Out come the usual pathologies
– long rambling speeches that only become a question under the bewildered gaze of the panellists and chair
– insanely technical questions designed to show off how much the questioner knows…

Slowly the energy drains from the room, as each questifier (as in a “questioner” who is really a testifier”) takes the previous one’s time-burn as a minimum to be exceeded rather than a bad example to be undershot. Instead of getting through 20 or 30 questions in the time allotted, you get through about 10. The questifiers are happy, everyone else is  silently (or openly) seething, bored and frustrated. And – crucially – less likely to help the organisation hosting the event to achieve its goals.

If this model helped build movements, don’t you think we’d have arrived by now?

Surely, one of our short-to-medium term goals must be to change the culture of public meetings around environmental issues.  We must decrease the likelihood that  “newbies”  will be scared off and currently active people disheartened by long, incoherent rambling speeches/questions. These stupid, selfish and anti-social behaviours  must become as unacceptable as smoking in confined places, drink-driving, or short-haul flights.

If you don’t have a “two sentence question” rule, you invite people to take up limited time by asking long rambling questions.

– deprives other people of the opportunity to ask questions
– sucks the energy out of the room
– alienates newbies, making it less likely they will get involved, or invite their friends to future events.

If you have the rule and don’t enforce it, then this
– damages the credibility of the rule (and other rules you have)
– damages the credibility of the chair
– damages the credibility of the organisation

What is to be done?
Options include;
Stop people having the opportunity, to ramble/rant/”questify” by having all questions written down on card and submitted to the front. This is the nuclear option. We shouldn’t have to treat chronological adults as if they were children, but the sad fact is that there is a small number of “campaign”ers who will ignore agreements because they believe their voice matters more than those of all the other people who would like to ask questions.

The upside of this is that it’s easy to do.
The small downside is it’s control-freaky (which is not in itself always awful – sometimes control-freakery is needed).

The big downside is that it doesn’t move the culture forward. It simply displaces the problem onto other meetings that don’t use this system. Good behaviours are not modelled and encouraged. Bad behaviour is merely deferred. The collective gets neither empowerment to or practice at shutting up the cuckoos/caccoos.
We could have a short spiel from the chair at the outset of the meetings

Your questions – your short two sentence questions –  will get this (Holds up “Applause” sign, and gets people to applaud).
Your speeches – your irrelevant convoluted speeches – will get this. (Holds up the “Slow Hand Clap” sign,  and leads a slow handclap.)
Don’t say you weren’t warned.

After the (brief!) panellists speeches, have the chair ask a few questions. This

  • get issues the panellists have ducked out on the table straight away
  • shows people how questions should be asked (sets a precedent)

Then invite the audience to briefly form  small groups and brainstorm their questions and then refine them with the help of other people. Get them written onto cards and taken to the front of the room.

Social pressure (carrot)

Applause for people who keep to the two sentences. Chair could applaud, and say  “Applaud if you think that question was well-phrased.”

Arm the chair with a klaxon on a timer (hat-tip to Adrian Segar)

Thanks from the panellist  to the questioner

Prizes to the best questioner (a book, a bottle of wine, something else). Best questioner gets a photo of themselves with the panellists, and a shoutout in the post-meeting publicity (What do you mean “we don’t do post-meeting publicity“?).

Final question of the night is given to the person who asked the best question.

Other suggestions from DT readers.

Social pressure (stick)

Deposit of five pounds/dollars, refundable if you keep to two sentences.

Feedback forms have a section where people can rate – with comments and a score out of ten –  what they thought of each question.  These comments and scores published online, with the names and organisational affiliation of the questioners attached.

Name and shame the behaviour  (Help! This is all I could think of)

  • Squestions
  • Questifying – testifying and questioning
  • Quambling – questioning in a rambling manner
  • Queaching (mix of questioning and preaching/speeching)

If someone still persists, have the chair and speakers recap question and with condescension. “I think you meant xxxxx. So why didn’t you ask this instead of wasting everyone’s time with a redundant speech?”

Actions I intend to take

  • Make a youtube video about the problem, its causes and consequences and the solutions I propose
  • Have a page in every public meeting booklet about the damage long questions causes, with cartoons
  • Run “how to chair” workshops for skill-share and encouragement

“But but but”

“This is all too controlling. It will put off new people.”
Hmm. I am not sure you have any evidence for this, since it’s not been done yet.  So I wonder if you’re against it perhaps because you are one of the questifiers, who likes being able to spout off because you know the chair, or you “know” a lot about “the issue” (cough cough)?

a) If I were a newbie, I might like the opportunity to refine my question in a small group, and to get help in framing it in a useful way. It would, I imagine, be less scary than sticking my hand up in a roomful of strangers and rambling on…

b) And you don’t address the fact that the current set up puts of a certain percentage of new people. And unlike you and your assertions, I have evidence for that – we never see them again!.

So it’s a question of how many people get put off (there’s no silver bullet), and which those people are. Personally, if the people who are attracted to our movement as it stands are attracted by the opportunities to spout gibberish at a captive audience, then IMHO we are much better off without them…

About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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2 Responses to How to “crowd enforce” the two-sentence-question rule

  1. Excellent question to which there can never be a perfect answer.

    At the risk of being repetitive, I think part of the problem is the insistence that audience members must ask questions. I don’t see why they can’t just make statements if they want to, especially if they stick to the time constraints. The panel can respond or not as they please.

    Much as I loathe almost all powerpoint presentations, my heart sinks lower if we then slip complacently into “Q andA” as if this is the appropriate way for a diverse group of people to converse and process ideas.

    My second cent: I have a hunch that if people sit in a circle, there’s a reasonable increase in social pressure.. a participant is much more aware in a circle of being seen by the whole room… I think people ramble less in circles…

    • dwighttowers says:

      Yes, generally agree. What’s the meeting for. If there are experts, or people to be held to account (like politicians), then questions. If not, statements can work.
      And circles do indeed create that social pressure – so thanks, useful refinements!

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