I re-watched the Question and Answer (Q&A) with Nigel Farage and David Cameron which aired on ITV on 7th June. Much was made of the two politicians not facing each other but facing a tougher opponent: the audience. Like many, I enjoyed watching the two men questioned by eloquent and opinionated audience members armed with prompt cards, stats and follow up points. While the politicians are trained and prepared for these encounters, you could see it was hard work. Both men looked happy when the ordeal was over at the end of what must have felt like a long half hour.
I facilitate management conferences for many FTSE 100 Companies. The communications and HR teams often look to shield their CEOs from, or to heavily control an audience Q&A with managers. I suspect that the confrontational spectacle of the ITV debate is what they want to avoid.
However, a Q&A for internal audiences is always a more constructive and enjoyable experience for all involved. I have honestly never seen one as confrontational as the scenes from the ITV studio. Here are five reasons why the two events are so different and why CEOs should embrace the opportunity for open Q&A at their conferences:
1. In the main, internal audiences want to have answers not to express opinions – the debate audience had points to make and were not there to change their minds. The audience in a conference wants answers to their questions – the more they get the more satisfied they will be.
2. A shared context: in most companies, the leadership and the managers have a shared set of goals – so an encounter between leaders and managers in a Q&A session can be set up as a dialogue to clarify the route to the goals rather than as a shouting match.
3. Areas of expertise: the politicians were often being asked pretty specific questions which they were not necessarily prepared for – like the impact on the UK pharmaceutical industry of Brexit. In this situation, a politician’s tendency is to answer a different question causing frustration. But a CEO is less likely to face this situation and can, quite legitimately, bring in a colleague to answer if the question is too specific.
4. Freshness: as well as few unknown questions, the debate had too many well-known questions. Regurgitating answers to previously asked questions never creates good feeling. But in an internal event there are ways of moving on from such questions and focusing on the new areas that need to be discussed.
5. Focus on the audience in the room – the TV debate was staged for the cameras. Both questioners and politicians were not really speaking to each other, but to the millions watching. If you can focus just on the audience in the room, much of the posturing and mis-communication disappears.
The recent jousting on UK TV between politicians and members of the public is not the experience business leaders face when talking with their own teams. The more natural and open they can be, the more constructive they can be.