How Not To Ask Questions After An Academic Talk

The Sphinx posing a riddle to Oedipus
The Sphinx posing a riddle to Oedipus

Academic Q&A sessions are, in theory, a good idea. When they work, they allow people to walk away with a deeper or even just more accurate representation of the speaker’s argument. They allow presenters to clarify things that may not have been communicated well in the talk. They hold presenters accountable for their claims. They can spark new ideas or new approaches by letting people engage with new perspectives. They allow groups that would otherwise be lost or absent from the debate to have their voices heard. Collaborations, job offerings, and maybe even friendships could all potentially arise from the connections formed by a questioner showing interest in and insight about the work of the presenter.

And yet, here we are. I don’t think I’ve gone to a single conference without sitting through a Q&A that made me cringe. Or at the very least a Q&A with a “let’s take this offline” spoken with the exact same tone and meaning as “go fuck yourself.” We know that a lot of things about Q&As just don’t work. For one, they reflect the sexism that pervades the rest of academia. Women ask fewer questions than men at conferences. This effect is less pronounced when, for instance, the speaker is also a woman, or if a woman is the first person to ask a question, but it’s a difficult bias to eliminate, even if the room as a whole is gender-balanced. The person who gets to ask the question first is the person who overcomes their stage fright, formulates their question, and gets to the microphone first. From a natural selection standpoint, the environment of Q&A sessions seems to favor brash, hastily constructed questions asked by people with the least compunctions (and the greatest mobility). Those people are highly unlikely to be the folks with the most interesting, deep, and thought-provoking questions.

There are a few ways that we can address the structural issues at play here (have student volunteers with roving microphones or index cards; use services like slido that let people ask and upvote questions from the comfort of their seat; have session chairs willing to step in and cut people off; etc. etc.). But, absent those changes, we can do our personal best to avoid making things worse than they are already. Here are some guidelines that I have developed in an attempt to curtail the worst excesses of the Q&A session.

You Are Speaking To A Human Being

When you go up to the mic to ask a question, you are not asking it to a disembodied Platonic “Paper Author” who exists only as the temporary avatar of the Paper Contents before dissolving into the ether. You are speaking to a person. That person is often very nervous, may or may not be comfortable with public speaking, with the English language, or with speaking extemporaneously. They don’t know how confrontational you are going to be. Be understanding and empathetic.

Resist the urge to make the Q&A session be an interrogation. Say hello! Thank them for giving a great talk! Just phrasing your critiques in “I like, I wish, what if” form can make your questions seem much less hostile.

“But,” you are saying, you devil’s advocate you: “Science is built on critique and challenges and overturning the status quo! If we let mere politeness and tone policing hold sway, then we are not upholding our duties as seekers of truth! Eppur si muove!” Great, sure. But a 30 second response at the end of a Q&A is unlikely to resolve the matter in your favor. 30 seconds is more than enough time to cement your reputation as an asshole, though. Your serious big-time critiques of the work that you have to get out there would probably work just as well as a blog post or an email or a follow-up conversation (or even an entire follow-up paper). You’re unlikely to accomplish much in the way of meaty debate in a live question.

This is really the primary guideline, from which all others are merely corollaries: treat the person to whom you’re asking the question like, well, a person. Not a thing you pump for information, not a thing you can use to stroke your ego and score points, not as embodied avatars of a school of thought you dislike, but as a person. Okay? Okay.

Don’t Monopolize

You presumably asked a question because you wanted to get a specific piece of information. It is possible that you will be initially unsuccessful at acquiring it, for many reasons. You didn’t phrase the question well enough (or failed to overcome a barrier of language or jargon) and it was misinterpreted. You got a surface level answer but wanted something deeper or more specific. You asked your question and got your answer, but the presenter’s answer reminded you of the real information you wanted.

It is natural for the inquisitive academic to then immediately ask a followup question. I get the impulse! But consider question-answering as a limited resource. Don’t make this particular commons more tragic than it needs to be. Is there a long line of people behind you at the microphone with expressions of impatience? Is the session chair looking at their watch and actively pushing the next speaker towards the stage? Perhaps now is not the time to really nail down your question, and try two or three different phrasings until you find the one you like best.

There are certain taxa of questions that are particularly bad at conserving question time and making sure everybody gets a fair share. I will lay them out here. As an added bonus, they also have the side effect of generally being shitty questions in general, so that’s multiple reasons to avoid them!

An Anecdote Is Not A Question

Questions are one of the few places in the English language where we get to play around with tonality and the subjunctive mood and all kinds of fun toys that ordinarily are left to the other, cooler, languages. Why you’d waste a chance to use them and instead ask a “question” that begins with “I’m reminded of…” or “More of a comment…” is beyond me. I realize this is hypocritical to tell you several hundred words into an essay, but please be brief. Your question should fit into one sentence, with no more than a clause or two inside of it. You may need additional contextual scaffolds before you can get to that one sentence, but there should be a single sentence at the heart of things. Don’t tell long stories or include long asides. Don’t try to fit an entire miniature talk into your time at the microphone.

“I Am Very Smart” Is Not A Question

I suspect that the reason many people ramble on before getting to their question is because they are not really asking a question, but are trying to communicate how smart or experienced or well-heeled or connected they are. “I wonder if you’re aware of the work of…” (or any of the less polite versions of that question). “Have you considered X?” (where X is a thing that you’re an expert in that you know the speaker isn’t an expert in). “There’s an interesting quote by…” You get the picture. It’s a waste of the presenter’s time since it doesn’t give them any useful feedback; at worst it tears them down a little as you try to score points off of their alleged ignorance. It’s a waste of the audience’s time since it doesn’t add anything useful to the conversation in the paper. It’s even a waste of your time since, instead of communicating “this person is quite smart” to the audience of people who might care about you, it is much more likely to communicate “this person is an asshole.” Surely there are better things you’d want to communicate?

A Multi-part Question Is Not A Question (It’s Multiple Questions)

Even if it weren’t rude to ask multi-part questions (everybody else has to wait their turn to ask questions, and you are taking two or more turns at once!), multi-part questions just anecdotally never seem to work. Again, giving a talk is stressful for most people. And stress and short term memory are not exactly best friends! The person is extremely likely to forget the multiple parts of the questions once they answer the first. Depending on how you structure things in your head, the most important and pressing part of your multi-part question is likely to be either first (because it’s the one that came to mind first) or last (because you were using your questions to build an argument, and wanted to end on a strong point). In the first scenario, the answerer will likely be so engaged with answering your complex question that they’ll totally blank on the other parts. In the last scenario, they will be thinking so much about how they are going to answer the most important part of the question that they will totally glaze over everything else. It’s just very unlikely to pan out. Think of the most important question, state it concisely, then move to the back of the line if you have more you want to ask.

Yes, You Need a Microphone

When the Q&A session is in a big room where you have to crawl over a dozen or so strangers to reach the mic, or if it’s in a room that’s so small that you think a mic can be overkill, it’s tempting to claim that you don’t need a mic. “After, all,” you say, “I’ve got a loud voice.” Or “I’ll just try to speak up.” No. Use a microphone.

I don’t know why this is so hard for some people, as though it’s an assault on their character to say that maybe they should use a device whose sole purpose is to amplify voices in order to amplify their voice. I’ve even seen people refuse to use a mic even after being handed one and having been told to use it by session chairs. Is this an ego thing? If so, get over it. Be considerate of people who have hearing aids, people who are watching on a livestream or some other recording, people who might not be able to hear your question but don’t want to be singled out after your perfunctory “everybody can hear me just fine, right?” Use a microphone. Yes, even if you’re “a loud person.” Even if your “voice carries.” Once you’re using the microphone, try to speak at a constant volume and hold it at a constant distance from your face.

Don’t Speak Tourist English

There’s a somewhat unkind stereotype that American tourists in foreign countries will not take the time to learn the local language but instead just default to “Tourist English” — English, but louder and more patronizing. I’ve noticed this tendency in conference Q&As as well, especially when it’s a senior person asking a question of a more junior one, and especially if that more junior one is not a native English speaker. The senior person will ask a question, the presenter will either explicitly say they don’t understand the question or give an answer that indicates that they didn’t pick up on what the questioner meant, and then the senior person will just repeat the same question, but louder. Or with a sneer. Or essentially the same question but with several extraneous words inserted in the middle in an attempt to clarify.

Some of the most infuriating Q&A sessions I have seen have been senior people asking questions of junior folks in increasingly pronounced Tourist English as it becomes clear that they aren’t getting the answers they want. The insulting diction of the questioner always lingers with me longer than the haplessness of the presenter. If you didn’t succeed the first time, try again after the Q&A in some other medium.

What To Do?

I have one suggestion that will solve many if not most of these ills (beyond better moderation):

Write down your question before you get in line to ask it.

This will accomplish many things. It will force you to think about how the question should be worded (and so encourage you to edit and simplify). It will give you a record of what you asked for your notes or conversations later. Sneakily, it will also give you some time to reflect on whether your question is really worth asking. That second of two or reflection may also give time for the people who don’t usually get to ask questions (those less senior, those less opinionated, those who feel less comfortable or welcome at these sorts of conferences) to work up the courage to think. Since you’ll likely miss your chance to ask a question unless you’re relatively quick, it also encourages you to keep your questions brief and manageable. It will give you time to notice who else has come up to the mic, and think about what you’ll be adding to the sentiments they are likely express.

Writing things down can’t cure being an asshole, but it may be able to treat the symptoms. Consider it the next time you’re in the audience.

Information Visualization, Data Ethics, Graphical Perception.

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