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How not to ask questions at a conference (inburke.com)
163 points by kevinburke on May 5, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

> But I was also pretty appalled at the question asking at the end of each talk.

Almost without exception I've always felt like this. It is often downright embarrassing to witness how the speaker has to stay interested and answer irrelevant or extremely niche questions in front of an audience. It is so bad that I really wonder why anyone, audience or speakers, would ever want to have an Q:A after a talk. Yes it can of course be frustrating if the speaker omitted something important or just should clarify something but even in those cases it is seldom the case that such issues would even surface during an Q:A.

Yes, an Q:A with insightful questions could spark a really interesting discussion and really take the whole talk to the next level - but that is so seldom the case that it just can't be worth it, yet everyone insists on these Q:As.

Whenever I've given a talk anywhere (usually barcamps and similar smaller events), the Q&A has always been the most interesting part both for me and the audience.

To the point where my Q&A's usually take up much more time than the talk that sparked them. There was even a time once when the discussion became so interesting we ate up the whole next session as well.

The point of a Q&A, for me, is to really find out what about my topic interests the audience so I can give more relevant information than I could when just delivering a dry talk without the back and forth.

But maybe I have a weird talk style since I usually ask a lot of questions of the audience as well, which primes them to pose better questions later on (or during the talk itself).

It is often downright embarrassing to witness how the speaker has to stay interested and answer irrelevant or extremely niche questions in front of an audience.

The speaker has no such obligation.

The speaker should consider the audience at large and politely defer niche or obtuse or self-serving questions.

Though I personally feel this would be perfectly acceptable, the speaker might come off sounding like a jerk to some people.

I suggest the moderator "take the bullet" and make a statement similar to this blog and cut out questions that don't follow the rules.

Though I personally feel this would be perfectly acceptable, the speaker might come off sounding like a jerk to some people.

I have the same problem when teaching class, and I usually say, "That's a good question, but talk to me about it after class." Switch "class" to "the talk," and you can probably get the same effect.

Yeah, having a "designated asshole" to keep things rolling is a big help. Sadly, it's not always arranged.

A designated asshole is nearly mandatory, especially for mixed technical audiences and issues where someone can have an [opinion on the bike shed](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinsons_Law_of_Triviality). Most people can't fill this role because they don't like conflict or have a reputation to protect (real or imaginary) but conferences should always assign a moderator to play the jerk.

I know this might be off topic, but did you just try to use Markdown?

That's how you link on Reddit. Maybe he thought it worked the same way here.

Ideally the moderator should shield the presenter, but it's not easy.

Politicians are the best at this. If they're asked a question they don't want to answer, they just answer a different one.

I think part of being a good speaker is knowing how to handle the - for lack of a better word - hecklers; the people who ask questions meant to show their expertise, or show they know something. A good speaker should be able to keep these people from disrupting what might otherwise be a Q&A session.

I agree with most everything the author said. But I'll add one thing: the secret or no-so-secret main point to a conference is promotion. The speakers are there to promote themselves. The attendees. The folks running it. The sponsors. Everybody. Okay, nearly everybody. Because if the real goal was what people claimed it to be, ostensibly, like "education" or "sharing ideas", etc., then there are generally easier, cheaper, faster, more straightforward ways of accomplishing those goals without involving a conference. (Like maybe using this thing called the Internet.) What conferences are good for, mainly, is face time, a change of scenery, an opportunity to press palms, to party, to travel as a business expense, etc.

I think it was telling that he admitted it was the first conference he'd ever been to. (And I'm not knocking his observations or recommendations: I think they are accurate and desirable!) Because for those who've seen a lot of them over the years, that whole self-promotion pattern is an old and recurring theme.

Also, promotion is unpleasant but it's generally better than writing resumes, filling out applications, going through an interview process, HR, the submission and patronization, etc. Better if people just know who you are, come get you, throw work and money in your face. Promotion gets you that.

I think the key connection that you and the author are missing, is that conferences are also about networking. Yes, there is certainly promotion going on, but more than that or additionally to that, people who go to conferences want to network. While I certainly agree on some of the points the author makes, part of the reason why the question asker is specific and uses common lingo (in the case of uncommon I agree with the author) is to give himself credibility. Which is important if you are going to pull aside the speaker afterword and talk to him, possibly exchange business cards, maybe ask him to lunch, and ultimately find him on LinkedIn. As during the final step of networking, Question Asker A, wants Speaker B to remember who he was and add him to his virtual network.

Which is ultimately a hell of a lot more useful then pretending as OP said to be there solely for "education" or "sharing ideas." Not trying to discount what OP said, but point to something valuable being overlooked.

Ask a question, don't make a comment

This depends on the nature of the talk. I've attended many talks which have included "and there's also this possibility we haven't explored in detail" where speakers have been very overjoyed to have someone stand up and say "we looked at that possibility, and found that it didn't work."

If you truly want to practice your public speaking skills, one of the best ways to practice is to go to a non-technical public forum with an audience (a public lecture with Q&A - NOT a local government meeting) and try to say something (it helps if you have passion/conviction on what you are saying) in a concise yet convincing matter.

Toastmasters also rocks. I got my CTM years ago - advice is to find a club that is not affiliated with your workplace or anyone you really know (more freedom to fail without feeling self conscious)

Oh God, please no. I mean, if you genuinely have something to relevant to contribute or share, then by all means. But please don't take up our time just so you can practice. There are better ways (Toastmasters, for instance) and we are trying to get stuff done in somewhat limited time.

Agreed, check out Toastmasters. They have schedules built around working 9-5ers and you'll get better feedback than public officials could possibly offer.

No need to waste anyone's time on the public dime so you can practice talking to people.

I applaud you for being involved in your local government. Editing the parent comment now.

The only things I ever care about tend to be complex issues that are very difficult to distill into concise terms without significant consideration. But then again it has been suggested somewhere on here before that actually talking lots (i.e. not being concise) is not such a bad thing when speaking because it keeps the listener engaged. Keeping the listener engaged here means, more precisely: preventing them from being distracted from the point you are making by hijacking their thoughts for a little while longer. Inversely, if you are concise in speech you run the risk of being overlooked like a joke that doesn’t have time to land. That happens to me a lot.

I'm pretty sure this is brilliant. Not 100% sure...but pretty sure.

I believe question askers have OK public speaking skills. Most just lack an awareness and respect for the audience around them.

I think awareness and respect for the fellow members of the audience are one part of public speaking skills.

One problem with toastmasters: sometimes you have to sit through nearly two hours of agonizingly bad speeches (either in content or delivery).

I decided it's not for me.

I disagree. It is not a burden on the audience to ask good questions, it is one on the speaker to deliver a talk that elicits good questions.

Talks are short, you can't cover everything. If you've addressed the audience appropriately, they should understand what you told them, and you should have given them the tools to look deeper into your topic. The perfect way to look deeper after a talk is to ask an expert (you!) right now. If you've made the talk interesting, they'll of course be genuinely interested and want to know more. So a good talk = good questions.

I judge every talk I give by the questions that are asked afterward:

If there are no questions, I gave a bad talk.

If they're pity questions (something superficial or off topic---"how does this apply to <my favorite foobar nobody else uses>" are typical), I gave a bad talk.

If they're questions about something I actually did cover, then either the asker is a moron or a pendant, or I did a bad job on that section (something that's easy to detect by watching the reactions of the rest of the audience).

If they're questions about something I glossed over on purpose, or they're about open problems or otherwise really make me think, I walk out happy.

As an audience member, your only job is to attend talks you think you might be interested in, and to relax. Your natural reaction will be a reflection on the quality of the speaker, and if you find yourself asking good questions, congratulations, you just saw a great talk.

NB: This applies equally to promotional and academic talks.

I've been part of the conference 'industry' for about three years. I generally attend about 20-25 conferences per year covering a variety of disciplines from software, to medical, to business. It is from this experience that I must unfortunately disagree with your view point :)

Regardless of the quality of talk, you can't escape a couple of people with "that guy" syndrome. Some people just can't sit still without making their opinions heard. Buzzword bingo from the article is a good example. There's often a king-nerd who need everyone in the room to know that he too is also smart, so he starts dropping stupid buzz words only marginally related to the topic.

I've seen people go up to the microphone just to give book suggestions to the speakers. "Oh, you like the subject that you presented about? I too know about this subject. I read books."

It's all veeeeeery painful to endure. So, in short, I wouldn't judge your talks by whether or not you get a couple of dumb questions.

These people exist, but they are outliers, and you can detect and discount them. If you're getting good questions, yes, you'll get a couple of these guys no matter what, but the rest of the audience will react to them for you.

That's pretty crazy.

It takes an incredible faith in the good intentions of other people to believe that everything that happens after a talk is solely the responsibility of the speaker.

Just as all speakers are not created equal, the audience isn't a uniform group of do-gooders ready to ask excellent questions given the correct provocation. There are bad apples, and there are stupid questions, and they get asked whether the speaker gave a good talk or not.

Great article. Really like the Google Moderator idea as a deterministic way to eliminate blowhards and improve the value of conference sessions.

Has anyone seen it used for this purpose? Any other tools like this? It's an interesting mobile app challenge.

Google uses Google Moderator very frequently. IO questions are filtered with it. The Android team makes public hangouts every week and answer questions filtered by moderator. I've even been in a dart hackaton where the creators of dart would answer questions filtered by moderator.

I don't think I've ever seen a bad question embarrassing the speaker after being filtered by moderator. The closest to that is sometimes the speaker will just skip the question. Since it's much more impersonal, it doesn't feel rude.

It really helps to have someone willing and able to play the heavy. Someone who doesn't care if the questioner gets pissed at him or her.

Many speakers at tech conferences are not really good at the nuances of audience interaction so a moderator who can step in to keep things moving is big plus.

Google uses it to filter the questions asked to Larry and Sergey at TGIF and a lot of teams use it to source questions during team meetings (mine did while I was there).

I wasn't aware of Google Moderator before. My first thought was that it looks interesting and useful for a limited audience. My second thought had me wondering how long it would be before Google killed it.

For a guy who's only been to one conference, this a fantastic list. Interesting interplay that I noticed:

a) Ask questions that you believe would be relevant to at least a third of the people in the room. and b) If you wouldn't ask the question without a room full of people present, then don't ask.

are not mutually exclusive, but do tend to whittle your potential questions down to a small set of very good ones.

Thanks! I started noticing and thinking about question asking a lot more during academic talks while I was in college. It's fair to say I hate bad questions :)

And since many questions are rambly or inaudible, if you are the speaker: briefly repeat or summarize the question before answering. If the question can be tweaked to a better one then this is an opportunity to do so.

There's an obvious solution: Get people to write down their questions on paper from which the speaker can select questions that are of general interest and to which he has a useful or interesting reply. To keep some excitement, you can even get the audience member to ask his question at the microphone (with the understanding that he has to ask the question he composed on paper).

I'll grant you that this wouldn't be appropriate for every kind of Q and A. Unwelcome questions would be suppressed in the White House briefing room, for example. But it should be fine for technical conferences.

The idea seems so obvious (and beneficial) that I'm wondering why nobody does it -- at least at any conference I've been to.

The Long Now Foundation does this at their monthly lecture series:


Everybody gets a question card as they walk in. At any point you can fill it out and pass it down for collection by volunteers. Somebody sorts them and hands them over to the moderator (usually Stewart Brand) who, at the end of the talk, sits down for a Q&A with the speaker.

It works really well. The moderator asks a mix of audience questions and follow-ups, plus asks a few questions of his own.

I strongly recommend the series. In person if you're in SF, and otherwise via podcast.

I guess I'm damaged from working in agile projects for too long. But whenever someone starts rambling in a large group I can't help thinking about how many man-hours were just lost.

Conversely, I've been at plenty of talks (not always tech) where there haven't been any questions, and that's awkward.

Sometimes dumb questions are better than none.

It would be rad if conferences hyped these guidelines before talks. I bet at least a few people would get the hint.

Really agree with "Ask a question, don't make a comment."

I was part of the audience for a Peter Molyneux talk recently, and half the questions just seemed to be statements. Was just thinking, what's a good answer to that?

On the other hand, for many people this is their only opportunity to speak publicly and be heard, and question moderation has to remain sensitive to this.

Why? Why should the organizers care about the audience members' desire to "be heard"? Having something to say and saying something worth listening to are not synonymous. The organizers' chief concern is putting on a good event. That requires having interesting talks with interesting questions. It does not require giving every Tom, Dick, and Harry a soapbox with which to draw attention to themselves.

...but at the cost of everyone else in the room's time combined?

Maybe if the person asking the question has no other opportunity to speak publicly and be heard, they should try to solve that instead as that is surely a more fundamental issue. Plus many of us in the room HAVE spent the time making sure we have well-read blogs, twitter accounts, etc

Do technical conferences not have poster sessions?


A staple of scientific conferences and very useful. Perhaps HN types would want a virtual poster wall, but there are advantages to the real paper variety (a chance to pitch to people reading the poster, and, who you therefore know are interested)

The 'designated asshole' idea works well only if the asshole in question has enough knowledge to recognize whether a question is relevant or not. Given the vast amount of knowledge it takes to differentiate a good question from a bad one (i.e recognize 'buzzword bingo' vs a real question), it would be very difficult (or prohibitively expensive at least) to find someone for the job.

That said, solutions like Google Moderator seem promising.

> The 'designated asshole' idea works well only if the asshole in question has enough knowledge to recognize whether a question is relevant or not.

I've never been to a programming or computer-science conference, but, at mathematics conferences, moderator duties tend to rotate among the attendees. This means that, while they may not be specialist content experts, they can at least separate the wheat from the chaff. Is this feasible at conferences of the sort the author describes? (It may not be; aside from the big international workshops, mathematics conferences tend to be much smaller affairs.)

I don't think the speakers themselves would want to play the role of 'designated asshole'. After all, the problems with this are largely the same as the ones with having the current speaker cut off bad questions - they need to be polite as speakers.

As you said, I think this works better in mathematical conferences and academic scenarios because people must be willing to accept objective criticism of their ideas.

How else am I suppose to promote my poorly conceived idea for a startup, without making a comment in the form of a question?

Conferences are supposed to be as much about gaining wisdom as imparting wisdom. Clearly the question part of a talk is the correct form for this two way transfer of wisdom.

As to Shreve's question about pushing back if you sense a dodge, keep in mind that there are sharply diminishing returns for each new followup.

Some guidelines I like:

1) Provide as many additional details the speaker explicitly requests.

2) If you think the speaker unwittingly misunderstood your question, clarify once and briefly. If that fails, it's a sign. Let it go for now.

3) If the speaker's response missed one of the 99 caveats you think are important, smile, sit down and consider drafting a letter.

Socratic conversations can be great ways to explore an issue, but they don't work while one party is on stage. You definitely shouldn't try to convert someone who is on stage. One followup should be all you ever need in this format. If you need more than one, you really just need a different setting.

Organizers can do a lot to improve the quality of Q&A. A clever hack used by the Long Now Foundation for their Long Now talks is to ask audience members to write their question down on paper, and pass the paper to the front. The best questions are then read out.

This has many effects. It eliminates long-winded and meandering questions. It also eliminates questions primarily intended to puff up the questioner. Unfortunately, this latter category is probably the majority of questions at tech conferences I've been too.

The result is that Q&A is often as good or better than the talk, and may continue for 45 minutes. At many events this would be torture; at the Long Now talks it's a pleasure.

I think the guidance in this should also apply to "how not to make comments on Hacker News"

I complete agree! :D

Should add to this list, don't use asking questions for the sole purpose of promoting your company.

Nothing worse than Hi, I'm <name> from <company> and I would like to know <trivial question>.

There are no wrong questions asked at a conference. Everyone is there to learn. I stopped reading the rest of the blog because I found the first bullet point annoying: "Only ask a question relevant to 2/3 of the audience." People can ask what they want. Who are you to say that their asking a specialized question is their way of "showing off"? Get over yourself!

Why don't all talks just have a private(/public) comment thread?

People could contribute to the discussion on the spot using whatever personal electronic device they like. The speaker could quickly address anything that was confusing, and also compose a more careful response to the deeper, more complicated issues.

A lot of the time though there are no questions whatsoever, in which case I figure it's kind of better if somebody says something, anything, as long as it's not totally obnoxious.

Related: asking questions that whilst widely applicable require a lot of detail for a worthwhile answer. Nobody can read your mind.

Good list. Another big one: Don't preface your question with a thirty second ramble about you and your background/career/company...nobody cares.

Those people aren't after an answer. They want the captive audience.

You actually expect social Etiquette at geek camp?

Seriously, these are adults attending these conferences. Trust me, if they are doing things like this - they will never "get it" socially. Thus - this is nothing but a pointless rant.

I don't think I can write a HN-worthy response to this. I'm really just disappointed and a little offended. Socially inept people are not beyond help. Giving up on them, and encouraging everyone else to treat them as hopeless cases, is not constructive and can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most social conventions are not innate. Everyone has to learn them at some point. Some are just later than others.

It's worth remembering the Golden Rule before addressing a room.

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