At any reading, screening or panel, the audience Q&A carries the potential to beautifully cap off the event, or ruin it. For a few minutes, the whole room is captive to anyone who can hold a microphone and likes the sound of their voice. Not everyone deserves such power. Here's how to handle it appropriately.
Photo by Blondinrikard Fröberg
There's usually an awkward silence at the start of the Q&A, as everyone thinks of a question and the host says, "Don't be shy." During the talk, think about what you'd ask the speaker, and what topics could use more discussion. If it's appropriate to pull out your phone, write yourself a note. Then when it's time, you'll already have a question ready. You'll be doing everyone a favour.
Repeat your question in your head a couple of times. You don't need to memorise it word-for-word, but you want to have command of your words by the time you have the whole room's attention.
We've all shifted in our seats while someone rambles on, waiting to see if he actually has a question. When you're reciting your question in your head, make it shorter each time. And stick to one question; no one wants a two-parter.
Actually have a question
My wife fantasises about carrying a sign reading "NOT A QUESTION" to every event she attends, and holding it high any time an audience member starts simply telling things to the people onstage. If what you have is "more of a comment", keep it to yourself, or tweet it instead.
Ask something with a widely applicable answer
Ask yourself whether your question will matter to anyone else but you. If not, try going up to the speaker one-on-one after the event instead. (But don't hound them.)
There's an easy way to tell if everyone wants to hear about your own book, business or upcoming event: Are you the person onstage whom everyone came to hear? A Q&A is not a meet-and-greet. Again, if you really think your own work is valuable to others, speak to them one-on-one afterwards.
Don't hog the mic
Once you've asked your question, give up the microphone. If you have follow-up questions or a reply to the speaker's answer, go up to them afterwards.
Overall, remember that any time spent on your question is time not spent on someone else's. So think competitively: How can you make your question a better use of the group's time than everyone else's?