Event Management

10 Tips to Run a Successful Ask Me Anything® Session

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Ask Me Anything® interactive sessions are becoming increasingly popular. Learn how it can bring a breath of fresh air to your event and successfully engage attendees.

Back in September when my friend Adam Parry proposed an Ask Me Anything® (AMA®) for my upcoming keynote session at ETL15, I accepted without thinking about it too much. Little did I know I was going to be blown away by the format, feedback and well, fear. In fact I will call them the 3 Fs of AMA® style sessions.

Before you get swallowed by too many acronyms let me give you some background about the concept of AMA®, why is it so popular and how you can successfully apply it to events.

#AMA® What?

The Atlantic does an excellent job in summing up how the concept of Ask Me Anything started:

In 1992, a book debuted called Ask Me Anything: A Sex Therapist Answers the Most Important Questions for the 90‘s. KnowYourMeme says there was a mid-’90s AOL chatroom called, “Ask Me Anything” in the romance category. (Though it had disappeared by 1999, when the Internet Archive began capturing data on aol.com.)

The concept was then adopted by several popular internet outlets but found its popularity when forum style site, Reddit, started a thread where users can ask any questions they wanted to founders of the site or subculture celebrities. AMA® and Ask Me Anything® are, in fact, trademarks owned by Reddit.

Long story short, President Obama answered questions on the site and a myriad of other celebrities followed. There is a book about it if you want to read more.

So… How Does it Work?

The format is quite simple. There is no format. Anyone can ask anything. As simple as that.

Of course, the celebrity does not answer all questions. The ones with most community votes tend to get replied to. Sometimes the celebrity (or interesting person) replies to further comments in the thread.

Questions can be really trivial or very challenging. Sir David Attenborough got asked about his most upsetting career moment, which led to a very heartfelt reply.

Barack Obama was asked about the White House beer recipe :-).

This mix of silliness and meaning is what makes these sessions widely popular.

OK… But What About Events?

I said it in our book Engaging Events, events have evolved. Attendees want interaction, event technology offering engagement is booming, in essence true engagement equals success.

AMA® style sessions on paper are one of the most radically engaging sessions you could run at your event. Think about it. No structure, just questions. Attendees can get targeted advice on their specific context, as opposed to a general address which has its evident limits.

Not all that glitters is gold though. While putting a personality, celebrity or performer in touch with your audience sounds like the ultimate idea, you really need to consider carefully whether this is the right move for your event.

So let’s have a look at 10 tips to make sure your interactive session is spotless!

1. Carefully Pick Your Speaker

When I said yes to Adam, I did not evaluate the consequences. While I usually prepare to present a topic, an AMA® style session is a completely blank canvas. That brings a lot of uncertainty to the table.

I loved the experience, it certainly was an adrenaline hit but I can safely say it is quite a tough one if you don’t have the right speaker.

See I can talk about #eventtech for hours. If you’ve met me around the world, you know how annoying I can be talking and talking about #eventtech. I never stop. See that’s my passion. I breathe it every day, 12 hours a day.

If your speaker is not confident enough with the subject, you may want to reconsider. You need a very high degree of confidence with the subject to perform. I was constantly challenged by the questions, I could not rely on my safety nets. While I tried to divert the conversation at times, attendees where bringing it back to pain points which can sometimes represent very difficult topics to elaborate in quick answers.

Make sure your speaker is comfortable with the session, make sure that they are 100% on board and committed to make the most out of the experience.

2. Have a Good Mod

Moderators or MCs have a key role in the success of an AMA® style session. Their role is slightly different from moderating a panel, they need to be more incisive, tech savvy and aware of the audience.

During my session I was very lucky to have James Dickson managing the questions. He was incredibly good in:

  • explaining how the session was going to unfold
  • stimulating questions on the showfloor
  • selecting the best questions on the app
  • moderating inappropriate questions out of the public display
  • keeping track of the time

These five tasks are instrumental in securing success. If not taken care of, they will have a negative impact on the success of the session.

3. Use Technology

AMA® style sessions are the brainchild of the internet and tech evolution. Using technology is key.

If you run events you will know that attendees are reluctant to ask questions at the end of regular sessions. Not necessarily because they don’t want to, more likely because they are scared to speak in public. Technology is a fantastic solution to this problem. Attendees can use apps or audience response systems to ask questions live. Other attendees can vote up questions they want answered.

Tech can also help to visualize questions on the main screen which helps those in need of visual aids during sessions. Although attendees may like the novelty of the session, they still want some form of structure.  This is one of the key reasons why formats like the unconference struggled to become mainstream. The complete lack of structure can confuse attendees.

4. Prepare

So you have your speaker ready for an amazing AMA® style session, all the attendees seated and excited, yet no questions are coming in. This is a quite likely scenario. We love to think attendees share the same commitment and interest in sessions, but realistically they might only have decided to attend a few minutes before.

You need to have some questions ready, in accordance with your speaker, that can serve as an ice breaker or safety net if few questions come in during the session.

These can serve the purpose of explaining how the session is going to work. Also have some prepared on the tech platform you are going to use. It will show your attendees the benefit of using the app to ask questions.

5. Consider Your Audience

AMA® style sessions are not for everyone. Consider you will have little time to explain how the session will unfold. Either your audience gets it or you are well, screwed.

Some attendees prefer frontal sessions with bullet point rich presentations, in the same fashion they prefer to fax the registration form instead of paying online. It’s the way it is.

The idea is to test the concept with a representative user group of your attendees and see their response. If they don’t understand what you are talking about, move on!

6. Promote The Session Adequately

Try to make sure that attendees know well in advance that you are going to run such a session. Using your website and most of all social media to communicate what you are trying to do is instrumental to the end result.

Promoting the session in advance gives more context to what will happen. Attendees will be able to grasp the general idea and will come prepared. It can also help to stimulate curiosity in what is an innovative format and reduces that ‘Where am I?’ factor some audiences may experience when confronted with such an innovative concept.

Additionally it will give your speaker enough confidence to perform and not think they are going against a public execution in front of hundreds of people.

7. Sync Your Social

Social media is a key element of a good AMA® style session. It is probably the best channel to promote it. Social users are more confident with the concept of AMA® and they may serve as echo chambers to your innovative attempt.

Social is also a key part of the actual session. Having someone from your team to summarize the answers you give on social media will help to digest what is being discussed. It also involve remote audiences in the conversation. If you followed point #3 they will be able to ask questions via the app.

Your live (moderated) social wall can display the the best bits of the action for others at the event and attract attendees from other areas of the venue.

8. Stream It!

Crowdstreaming is the trend of 2016. Invite attendees to stream the session live on Periscope or Meerkat. Set up a stream yourself if they are not ready.

This is a great way to turbocharge remote attendance. The benefits are indisputable. You get more questions in, which is a very good thing. You get more engaged attendees online willing to learn more about your event and very likely attending next year. This is quickly becoming a given for most events.

AMA® style sessions are perfect for remote audiences. In fact they were born this way. Do not miss out on the opportunity. As always, the official stream needs to be of quality and you need to have someone dedicated to look after it.

9. Get the Speaker on The Floor

When I started my session at ETL15 I was on stage. As the first questions came in, I quickly realized the stage was incongruent with the type of session we were having. I immediately jumped off stage to mingle with the crowd and be closer to them.

AMA® style sessions are very personal sessions. The speaker should walk around the audience. They should be close to who is asking the question. The idea is to break down the barriers between the audience and the speaker. Break through the aura celebrities have and make them accessible to our audience.

The speaker on stage is the legacy of how we used to do things 30, 40, 50 years ago. Connecting your speaker to the audience is actually a very good idea, regardless of whether you are running an AMA® style session or not.

10. Embrace Risk

AMA® style sessions is not for the risk averse. In the same way that event professionals dreaded social media in its early days for the fear of being talked at negatively, an AMA® approach can be perceived as risky. In part this is true. You don’t know what the audience will ask, you don’t know if questions will be submitted, you don’t know how the speaker is going to react, you don’t know whether the end result will be useful and universally valuable for your audience.

In fact I still don’t know if this was the case for my session. I surely know everyone I have met in London over the past few months remember that session. They have heard and read about it.

High risk = high return.

In Conclusion

AMA® style sessions are potentially very disruptive for the industry. Lots of good can come out of them if handled correctly.

If you are willing to see one in action come to my next two #askJulius sessions (yes, it’s becoming a thing) at Confex and ISES Accelerate in the next few months. It will be a great opportunity to put me and what I just shared to the test.

Have you tried AMA® style sessions at your events? Can you share more tips?