You only get one question…

…then shut up and let others have a chance.

I was at a delightful one-man storytelling event at the Tempe History Museum the other night. The performer adopted a variety of costumes and facial devices as he related historical commentaries on the parade of Native American tribal customs from the past thousand or so years – Hohokam, Atzlan, Yaqui and Pima to name a few. The Hohokam (“those who are gone”) are considered to be the builders of the original canal system around the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Zarco Guerrero did a great job of keeping the tales lively and brief and after about 40 minutes the crowd of 50 or so enthusiastic attendees of many ethnic backgrounds was invited to ask questions or give comments.

One woman in the front row was quick to raise her hand and was recognized by the moderator. Her comment, about the Pima tribe’s long-staple cotton, was rather detailed and took a couple minutes to explain. Zarco acknowledged the excellent information with good grace and we were ready for more questions.

Three or four people were recognized by the moderator around the room, each offering a quick question or comment.

And then…and then…our first row lady struck again. From my spot at the end of the second row I could see her hand going up, but I could also see seven or eight hands throughout the room.

Alas, the moderator recognized her again and she launched into a second 4-5-minute commentary.

Now, I’ve seen this kind of thing at several different casual public meetings and always wondered at the self-centeredness of people seated toward the front who think they can just keep asking questions. They don’t look around to see who else is trying to get attention. And almost as bad, the lecturer doesn’t either. Even worse is when there’s a moderator or host who doesn’t scan the room, especially the middle and back areas.

So my rule is: You get to ask one question, with maybe a brief follow-up for clarification. Then you get to shut up for a while.

Look around the room. If no hands are raised, go ahead and ask another question. Then, after five or ten minutes you can jump back in…

…or be prepared for a good old-fashioned Salt River dunking.

Zarco performance photo by the author. Poster from Tempe History Museum promotional site.

4 comments on “You only get one question…

  1. charleycrews says:

    Actually, very common, AND a pet peeve of mine. Unfortunately, because it really takes away from the meeting. Don’t know how you police the one question rule other than to say no questions except by written submission before hand.

    • jveeds says:

      It’s pretty aggravating to see a speaker simply reacting to the first or highest hands being raised instead of scanning the room and making purposeful selections. I’ve seen this happening from a public library presentation to a small, packed neighborhood historical society forum. I guess if it’s a matter of official public proceedings, written questions might be useful, but for a lot of presos, the audience members may not realize they have a question until they hear some Q&A’s and subsequent discussion.

  2. jveeds says:

    This comment came in from a shy reader: “Ah, good advice. I fear that I broke this rule as a presenter last summer. I invited questions/comments as my talk went along and one person in the audience (it was a big circle so everyone could see each other) made several comments. If they had been a couple short comments it would have been OK, but they were rather lengthy and applied to her country and were not that transferable to other situations. Alas, I couldn’t figure out a graceful way to cut her off, but should have invoked your rule. The lack of my “backbone” (because I wanted to be nice) meant that I cut short some of the points I was going make from my outline. Wish I had read your advice earlier. Can you think of any graceful way to cut someone off who is very wordy and not aware that they are monopolizing a group’s time?”

    Answer: I think having a moderator is the best way to handle this kind of situation, even if you have to appoint someone, ad hoc, as in “Hey, Sarah, since we have a quite a few people here, would you mind overseeing the questions so we can make sure we get around to everyone?”

  3. jveeds says:

    Another shy reader says “Spot on! I have experienced this annoying selfishness in all formats and events. More widespread than the Zika virus. Strong, clear piece! Thanks for sharing.”

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