The art of asking conference questions

Asking a ‘good’ question is an important skill for anthropologists. It is something we practice in a variety of situations – at conferences, during classes (as students and lecturers), at meetings, in conversations with employers and clients, throughout the research process, when we write, as we supervise students or staff, and when we reflect on our teaching. Since my annual ‘conference season’ is almost upon me I have been thinking a lot about the art of asking conference questions.

In particular, I have been thinking about a blog post on one of my favourite blogs, The Thesis Whisperer. Earlier this year Inger Mewburn (aka the Thesis Whisperer) wrote about Academic assholes and the circle of niceness, a post which resonated with a LOT of people. The post talked about academic colleagues who are ‘rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile … in the workplace’ and many of the comments focused on the kind of aggressive and nasty behaviour that audience members at seminars and conferences can display.

You are probably familiar with this behaviour. There are those who ask questions to show how much they know (and, by implication, how much you don’t) about your topic. Others have a particular axe to grind about x, y, or z (which may or may not be related to your presentation). Some basically are just assholes and make it really, really hard not to roll your eyes as their ‘question’ turns into a 3-5 minute statement on … what was it they were saying again?

I am not interested in the kinds of questions academic assholes ask. They are generally neither constructive nor helpful, and they close down the discussion rather than opening up new possibilities for ideas and understanding. I am much more interested in the art of asking ‘good’ questions.

I think the art of asking ‘good’ conference questions involves:

  1. Taking your role as an audience member seriously. This means actively listening to and engaging with the speaker’s ideas.
  2. Considering the Strategies for constructing a question outlined by George Washington University. These include: listening for questions posed but not pursued by the presenter; listening for keywords; listening for the larger theory/issue the presentation addresses; making connections among presentations; and drawing upon your own experience and knowledge.
  3. Asking to inquire, not to impress. This tip comes from a post on about the art of asking questions and essentially says ‘don’t be an asshole’.
  4. Being constructive. This is about opening up possibilities for discussion. A constructive question could probe for more information, give the speaker an opportunity to expand on something there wasn’t time to address, or suggest new ways of thinking about a topic.
  5. Being courteous. Start your question with what you found interesting about the presentation. Try not to interrupt as he or she is answering, and when the speaker has answered your question, thank him or her for the response.
  6. Being clear. This can be difficult, especially if you are still formulating your question as you are talking. However it is important to ask your question as clearly and concisely as you can in order to generate a thoughtful response.
  7. Timing. Is your question something that the speaker will be able to respond to during the time set aside for discussion? Do you want to ask about something specific that might be of interest only to you and the speaker? Do you have a serious concern about an aspect of the presentation, one that is likely to undermine or discredit the speaker? If so, you might consider asking your question in a one-on-one setting rather than in front of an audience.

I enjoy question time at conferences and often learn as much from the questions and responses as I do from the presentations themselves. I appreciate a ‘good’ question as an audience member and speaker, and admire those who have perfected the art of asking questions. (Disclaimer: this is not an art I have perfected myself! I always think of brilliant questions a day or so after the event.)

What do you think? What strategies or tips do you have for asking ‘good’ conference questions?

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