Should you let your webinar attendees ask voice questions via telephone or computer mike, or should you require them to type questions into a Chat or Q&A panel?
Letting your audience ask questions by voice adds immediacy and a sense of personal interactivity to your session. In small group meetings or small classroom settings this is definitely the way to go. You want to encourage a conversation with a small audience.
But I am not a fan of taking telephone questions in a large audience webinar or a presentation given to the general public. Here are the reasons:
1) Control over what gets asked
When looking at questions coming in via typed chat, you can pick and choose which questions to address in which order. If you see the same question coming from many different people, you can answer it first and elect to spend more time on it. If you see a question that is highly specific to one person or something that is counterproductive, you can elect to skip it. Every time you open an audio line for a new question, you run the risk of getting a question you don't want to deal with in the webinar.
[SIDE NOTE: Look for the ability in your web conferencing product for presentation team members to mark incoming questions. Many technologies now include the ability to put a priority on a question, or color-code it, or otherwise segment questions for easier handling during Q&A.]
2) Seed questions
If things are going slowly in a telephone Q&A, you can't pretend to have a caller. You have to be obvious about asking one of your own questions. It also takes more concentration and active management to track which participants are waiting to ask a question and to open and close their lines. In a large webinar you never want to just open all the lines and let the audience sort out who gets to talk! Some webinar technologies are poor at matching phone lines to web participants (if they don't enter a personal ID for instance). With typed questions, you can read off one of your seed questions as if it came from the audience -- no one is the wiser.
3) Focus and brevity
I can't tell you the number of times I have heard a telephone question start off like this: "Am I on? Oh, okay. Hi, Ken! I really love your presentation. I've listened to a lot of them in the past. Here's my situation. You see, we give a lot of webinars ourselves... Well, not really a lot... Maybe one every two months. Is that a lot? Well, anyway... When we are giving one of these presentations it seems like there's often a strange thing that happens. Let me try to explain. You see, first we..." Arrrrggh!!! The rest of your audience has long since stopped listening and you are having a hard time figuring out what the question is. When people type their questions, it forces them to be more concise and gives you the opportunity to further focus the message and get right to the heart of the question when you read it out loud.
4) Audio clarity
Opening up an attendee microphone is always a tense moment for me. Am I going to hear feedback? Volume levels that are uncomfortably loud or imperceptibly soft? Distracting background noises? A heavy accent that I have a hard time understanding?
5) Record keeping
Most web conferencing software lets you save a log of the chat queue. This is useful for answering skipped questions later, building FAQ lists, gauging interest from specific attendees for sales or customer service follow-up, and so on. You lose this capability with audio questions.
I know of one vendor that has attempted to implement a compromise between audio and typing for audience questions. Webinato (formerly omNovia) has a feature you can enable or disable in your webinars. If enabled, attendees can record an audio question or comment using their microphone. The host or presenter can review submitted audio messages and choose to either paraphrase them for the group or play them back for everyone to hear. It's an innovative approach, but I have found it too hard to monitor and review recordings as a solo moderator while taking care of other webinar duties. I would want to assign a dedicated question management assistant who could devote full attention to reviewing recorded questions and telling me which ones to include during Q&A.