Crowd-prioritized questions for speakers

This past week I tried an experiment during a major speaking engagement on my campus. This was our annual “Commitment to Community” address by the fabulous Kemba Smith. We had her on campus for a day and she interacted with our students in lots of ways, culminating in a major presentation to the campus in the evening.

In my role as director of the first year seminar I was involved in some of the planning (I need to be clear here and heap praise on the C2C team – they did all the work and deserve all the credit for the great day). Specifically I was involved with planning how the overflow room should work. We hold the event in a neighboring church that can only seat something like 500. We like to have a satellite location that can simulcast the event. In early planning, I expressed how it would be interesting to do something different in that room. I thought it would be great to brainstorm activities people could do, while listening, that could raise the engagement of the audience. What we decided on was to crowd-source the prioritization of the questions we’d ask.

What we planned

We thought it would be great to encourage the audience (only in the satellite room) to use internet-connected devices to submit and vote on potential questions for the speaker.

We picked the Q&A feature of Google Slides to do this. We made a simple one-page Google Slides document and turned on Q&A when the event started. We made sure the url was clearly displayed in the room.

I invited the first year seminar faculty to bring their classes, with a limit of 3 classes, and talked to a few other faculty about it as well.

We told people we’d be the first three questions asked in the church since I promised to text our questions to a plant (from the C2C committee) in the church.

What happened

Only two faculty brought their first year seminars (the rest went to the church). When I asked people how they made that decision I heard lots of interesting things:

  • “I really want my students to be there to hear Kemba”
  • “I’m not sure my students will have the focus you’re looking for”
  • “Sounds cool but I really want to be in the church”
  • “I’d love to because I’m always squished in the church”
  • “That’s an interesting experiment”

In addition a few other faculty and students came. All together we had over 80 people there.

We passed out cards explaining what we were doing, because I figured if anyone came late I wouldn’t be able to explain it myself. Many were there early and we verified the technology worked with everyone’s cell phone.

We only had a handful of submitted questions, the highest rated of which only got six votes.

I submitted the questions a little early (we had a 2-minute delay that I didn’t want to miss). The question ranking changed a little after I submitted them, but the top three remained the top three. In the church all our questions were asked, but not all at once at the beginning of the Q&A session.


I was a little disappointed at the lack of engagement with the technology, but quite happy with the respectful and attentive attitude in the room. I’ve spoken with some about why there weren’t so many questions submitted and a few suggested that a lot of Kemba’s presentation was personal narrative, and that’s sometimes hard to question.

I think our questions were good. They certainly weren’t the horror stories you sometimes see at Q&A sessions for big speakers. You know what I’m talking about:

  • “Thank you for your talk. I agree that _____ and let me tell you my whole life story before getting to my actual question.”
  • “I came in late, could you please say everything you said at the beginning again?”
  • “I have told you before that I disagree with you about point ____ and I’m going to walk you through every conversation we’ve ever had right now.”
  • “Do you know ____ who says the same stuff as you but better?”

I had a question voted down. What’s fascinating about that is my emotional reaction. I would have thought I’d be disappointed about that. But it was interesting that I was relieved! I realized that I might have asked it if there were no crowd-sourcing and I might only hear after the event how dumb a question it was. In this case I don’t think people thought it was dumb, but they clearly thought other questions were more worth their time, and I think that’s great!

One interesting feature of this experiment was that the speaker couldn’t see how the voting and “leader board” evolved during her presentation. I think that’s likely a good thing, as it can be very distracting. In our implementation I did not project the leader board, but it was on everyone’s phone.

I think I’d like to do a little more experimentation with this. I think it could help with student engagement and I think it could really make the Q&A sessions more worthwhile.

Your thoughts? Here are some starters for you:

  • This is cool! You could also think about doing . . .
  • This is dumb! Instead you should have  . . .
  • I thought you used to love Google Moderator, why didn’t you use that?
  • I think you didn’t get too many submitted questions because . . .
  • I think you didn’t get too many votes because . . .
  • I’m personally hurt by your examples of horror shows in Q&A sessions. I love all of those examples you describe!
  • Here’s another to add to your horror show list . . .


About Andy Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in community, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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