Civil War Lives Questioned and Answered

Best Practice: The Question and Answer Session

  • Have note cards and pencils available for audience members to write down questions during the presentation or panel discussion.
  • Assign a team member to collect the cards at the end of the formal presentation.
  • Conduct Q&A session by having a team member read aloud questions written on the cards and allow presenters to respond.


Tell me if this has ever happened to you…

You’ve just enjoyed a thoughtful, engaging panel discussion. The speakers had fantastic content, you’re taking away materials and information you can begin using right away. You’re inspired and energized. Then the session moderator says…

“We’ll now take questions from the audience.”

Sometimes this goes very well. There will be meaningful discussion, you’ll discover someone remarkable in the audience, speakers will have a chance to share even more great information. But let’s face it, sometimes the Q&A session sucks the oxygen right out of the room.


There are two types of “questions” I find particularly frustrating:

  • The Got ‘Cha - These questions typically are an attempt by an audience member to stump a presenter with either conflicting information or a provocative opinion. It’s poor sportsmanship.

  • The Speechmaker - Oh, there might be a question in there somewhere, but it will be buried in a long speech where the audience member aims to demonstrate their own expertise on the subject matter. It’s often cringeworthy.


The good folks at the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History had a better way.

There are plenty of formats event planners can use for the Q&A. My least favorite is when a moderator randomly chooses people from the audience who then stand up and shout out their questions. This is the environment in which the Got ‘Cha and the Speechmaker thrive (and often multiply.) Having people approach standing microphones is a moderately better choice. Even better than that is having a real live person holding a microphone and cruising the aisles for audience members with questions. The staff member essentially becomes a referee, able to rephrase got ‘cha questions into something more constructive or to help move along the speechmaker.

Recently, I attended the Nau Center Signature Conference “Civil War Lives” at the University of Virginia. These folks had a great answer to the Q&A question.

“Civil War Lives” was a full day of 19th century history. Each session lasted 45 minutes, but did not offer an opportunity for questions. Instead, at the end of each presentation, we had a 10 minute break during which we could write down questions on note cards provided by conference organizers. After three morning presentations, all the presenters came back for a 30 minute Q&A session. Questions were read off cards and presenters were able to respond. (The same approach was used in the afternoon.) No got ‘chas. No speeches. Just productive discussion.

I like it and I would like to see it replicated in other meetings and conferences. It’s definitely an option I’ll be putting forth when I’m doing event planning.


What do you think? Have you experienced this approach or something similar?

What’s your preferred Q&A format?

Where We Saw the Future of History


“The battlefield lecture starts in five minutes upstairs,” the kind Park Service gentleman explained. “It lasts about 45 minutes.” A 45 minute lecture about the Battle of Antietam? Did this guy even see the 12 year-old boy standing next to me? We needed cannons. Like now.

Another Park Service representative had been leaning against the wall eavesdropping on the conversation. Quietly, he slipped a pack of trading cards into my son’s hand. And he winked knowingly at me. Baseball, hockey, cards work with my son.

“Look,” I said, pulling the Kid out of earshot. “Let’s just walk upstairs to be polite. We’ll stand in the back of the room so we can slip out unnoticed and come back down for the movie.”

Forty-five minutes later the Kid and I were sitting on the window ledge at the front of the room, mouths agape, completely mesmerized by the young guy giving the lecture. Dude was good! No fancy videos or special effects. He periodically held up sepia-tinted photographs wrapped in plastic. This kid understood the art of storytelling and he did it beautifully. His energetic tone and engaging speaking ability brought the Battle of Antietam to life. 

If this is what the future of history looks like, we’re going to be in good hands.



This post is adapted from a piece I wrote about a spring break trip my family took two years ago.