Exploring the New Q&A

Author: Casey Gale       

EAACI Congress attendees

At the EAACI Congress, presenters speak for seven minutes, groups discuss what they heard for seven minutes, and share-outs take seven minutes. (Photo by Robert Hausmann and property of EAACI Congress)

The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) Congress had been held annually for more than three decades when the organization reached out in 2015 to Maarten Vanneste, president of the Meeting Design Institute, based in Turnhout, Belgium. The association was looking for some ideas on how to freshen up the meeting for its approximately 8,000 attendees. Session formats were traditional — speakers would talk for 25 minutes, open the floor for a quick Q&A, take a question or two from one or more of the 1,000 attendees in the audience, and then the next speaker would hop on the stage.

“That was something that’s kind of old-fashioned,” said Edward Knol, Ph.D., EAACI vice president, congresses. When teaching in the classroom as an associate professor at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, Knol said he did his best to avoid brief Q&A periods since they didn’t allow for true interaction. Even workshops that were meant to be interactive at the EAACI congress, Knol said, did not provide the level of speaker/attendee interaction he felt members needed in order to truly absorb information during sessions. And so Knol was very receptive when Vanneste introduced EAACI to a new and improved form of the Q&A: C&I, for “Conversations and Input.”

Interaction and Activation

The idea of C&I, Vanneste said, is simple. It works like this: Attendees are broken up into small groups at tables of five or six individuals. The presenter on stage speaks in approximately 10- to 15-minute intervals, and then inserts a “C&I moment” to pose a question to the audience. It could be something as simple as, “What is the most interesting piece of information you’ve learned in this presentation so far?” or, “What about this presentation excites you?” The attendees then discuss at their table, making up the “conversation” portion of C&I. It’s a way to “interrupt” the presentation, Vanneste said, “to wake people up — make their brains do different things instead of only listening and looking forward.”

After a few minutes have passed, the speaker selects representatives from a few tables to share their answers — providing “input” — before moving on to the next portion of the presentation. These C&I moments can be used only once during a short session, or multiple times throughout a longer presentation to keep the audience engaged.

“The quest is for interaction, right? That’s the foundation of all of this,” Vanneste said. Organizers “want more activity, they want people to stay awake, to get involved, to do something, to talk to each other. I think if you want to activate the audience, you have to just count how many people you activate with a Q&A. If you have a hundred people in the room and a speaker does a Q&A at the end, and one person asks a question — that is two people who have spoken in this moment, the speaker and this one participant. Ninety-eight percent of the room is still passive and listening.”

But the activation ratio can rise to 100 percent using C&I, since every attendee is given the opportunity to discuss what they’ve learned with their peers. Ideally, Vanneste said, friends and colleagues are separated at the door; a volunteer can direct attendees to different tables in order to maximize true networking opportunities. “If all is well at the beginning of a session, you have five strangers sitting at your table,” Vanneste said. And by the end of the session, he said, “every time, you see this phenomenon — people stay and they talk to each other and exchange email addresses, take selfies. They get to know people that will probably become their friends, just based on one session doing C&I. That is magic. That is what we need in meetings.”

C&I in Action

When EAACI first introduced this concept at its 2015 event in Barcelona, organizers chose six designated workshops to use the C&I method, starting in a room with 10 tables that each seated six attendees. “We try to select, with the scientific program committee, sessions where we notice a kind of discussion always going on in the field,” Knol said. “If it’s a very clear subject, it is more difficult to engage the audience. But if we know that there’s some learning [element], that people don’t know all the details or how to implement specific changes in our field, those are really the sessions,” he said, where C&I works best.

The C&I–centered sessions at the 2015 congress were such an immediate hit that there were lines of attendees out the door hoping to join in the discussions. At first, EAACI limited C&I sessions to 60 participants each, but they have since expanded to 300-participant sessions at EAACI’s congress, held June 1–5 in Lisbon this year, “but still all around a table, and still the same setup,” Knol said, which is seven minutes of speaker time, seven minutes of conversation, and seven minutes of input. There were 10 C&I sessions at this year’s congress.

Vanneste credits the popularity of C&I to its social element. “The goal is not just to learn, because you learn a lot from the speaker, but also learn from the conversations,” he said. “The main value lies in the fact that you now have networking, and you get to know new people in a very powerful way, because the session is a filter. It brings together people with similar interests, and the small group discussions are the turbo. It really speeds up connections, because you have a few minutes to speak, and to learn, and to listen to five other people around your table, and you very quickly realize, ‘That person is someone I need to talk more to.’”

Vanneste said that he hopes that C&I becomes as much a part of the events industry vernacular as Q&A — and that the format comes standard with every event. “Maybe sometime in the future,” he said, “this is going to be an automatic thing that everyone does.”

Casey Gale is a Convene associate editor.

Winning Over Speakers

EAACI’s Edward Knol said that when the C&I method was first introduced to speakers at a pre-con meeting in 2015, they were critical, expressing concern over how the C&I method would work in a live setting. Some subject matter expert presenters were “like grumpy old men,” Knol chuckled. But 10 minutes of practicing C&I with a live audience, he said, was enough to change their minds. “They were engaging at all times with the groups in discussions.” Now almost every year, Knol said, EAACI makes it a point to involve previous C&I skeptics in one of these interactive sessions. Once speakers have done one C&I session, he said, they are won over. “It is a big success; people are very enthusiastic about it. Not only the participants, but also the speakers, because they feel that they are engaging with the audience,” Knol said. “And it’s lots more fun.”