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Thursday, March 03, 2011

How to Ask Questions At Conferences and Colloquia

The question-and-answer session that follows most academic talks can surely be improved.  Here are five suggestions:

(1) Thesis, Thesis, Thesis: While not all good scholarship is driven by a central claim, that's the standard model, and one that you should not depart from lightly.  In my view, high quality questions speak to an author's thesis (or its subsidiary claims and the evidence for those claims).  Too frequently, audience members focus not on the claims a speaker makes but rather on the general "flavor" of a speaker's claims or (worse yet) the general subject matter of the talk.  I admit there can be good questions that speak to something other than the author's thesis and its subsidiary claims, but all else being equal, questions that focus on the speaker's claims are preferable.

(2) Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood (with thanks to Stephen Covey):    The best questions, in my view, should begin with "You assert X."  Then, you can move on to (2a) Asserting X is problematic for the following reason(s), or (2b) Claim X can be made even stronger by considering such and such.  In some cases, you may have to begin with, "Are you asserting X?"  The key, though, is to begin by focusing on the claim you seek to address.  Doing so helps the speaker diagnose whether or not there is a substantive disagreement with the questioner or whether there is a miscommunication (frequently, there is both).  Starting with a demonstration of your understanding of the speaker forces you to hone the question so that it speaks more directly to the speaker's assertions.  It may also reveal that the speaker has been insufficiently clear about his thesis and its subsidiary claims.  Perhaps most importantly, it helps other audience members understand your question because they know more precisely what you are addressing.

(3) Shorten Your Question:  Most questions are too long and disjointed.  If you begin by clearly stating the assertion you are addressing (see principle #2), you will naturally improve your questions.  Moreover, you should have a good sense of what your question is before you start speaking.  If you find yourself formulating the bulk of your question as you speak, you may well be wasting people's time.  No one can demand that every question be crisp and spot-on, but that's what you should aim for.

(4) Time Allocation: Just as speakers should honor pre-established time guidelines, audience members should remember that other people have questions and insights as well.  When the end of a session approaches, I've seen the following approach work well:  Have the remaining people on the queue (or who have their hands up) ask their questions in succession without giving the speaker an opportunity to respond.  Then, in whatever time remains, the speaker can try to address the final round of questions together or in quick succession.  It is frustrating to have an interesting question to relay but not have the opportunity to do so because the floor was hogged by earlier questioners.  By allowing the remaining questions to get off the ground, those questions at least become part of the discussion, even if they don't quite get their due.

(5) Allow one follow-up:  Though I think that questions should be succinct and due care given to the time remaining for other audience members, I have also seen speaker's dismiss interesting questions too hastily.  The opportunity to make a quick follow-up point can discipline speakers and encourage important interchange.  Allowing a follow-up also takes advantage of the face-to-face interaction that you cannot get by just circulating a paper to a group of people and emailing around feedback.

Posted by Adam Kolber on March 3, 2011 at 04:19 PM | Permalink


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I have written a follow-up post addressing a number of the questions and concerns raised above:

As for Jim von der Heydt's comment, I do think that many "questions" could simply be presented as criticisms that seek replies such that the obligation to phrase one's comment in the form of a question is as unnecessary as the same requirement in the television game show "Jeopardy!". I also think there is something to be said for occasionally playing devil's advocate. I'm afraid I can't say, though, whether your 40% estimate is correct. (I do know the correct percentage, but I refuse to reveal it.)

Posted by: Adam Kolber | Mar 10, 2011 3:10:30 PM

Great post, Adam. One workshop tic that doesn't add value, I think, is prefacing a question with This Isn't My Field But. I say it sometimes and am trying to stop. It can be a charming message when delivered with wit, but given the lack of specialized training in the legal academy, at a workshop we should revere Field boundaries much less than we do. (I'm more open to that reverence when a faculty reviews scholarship to make a personnel decision.)

Posted by: Anita Bernstein | Mar 9, 2011 8:29:00 PM

as someone who will be presenting for the first time at a conference next month, this is very interesting and will help guide my preparation and anticipation of questions. To move to a slightly different question, what is the typical process for making the paper available? Will people attending the conference see the paper you are presenting in advance, or do they typically see/hear what you have to say for the first time when you actually make your presentation?

Thanks for any input.

Posted by: son of Redyip | Mar 9, 2011 2:14:30 PM

Great post, Adam.

I personally try to stick to the following principle: Ask questions, or make comments, that are specifically designed to contribute to the development of the thoughts presented. That principle, of course, implies your principle #2 (that one must seek first to understand, then to be understood), because it is only the thoughts that are being presented that can profitably develop in these kinds of exchanges.

But the principle also reflects a conception of what these workshops can (and in my view should) be all about: they are parts of the larger academic project of developing ideas and producing both knowledge and understanding. They are not (or should not, again in my view) be primarily about evaluating people's intelligence or showing off one's own. After all, any moment spent on such things is an opportunity lost for helping to achieve something of real value in this kind of setting. And there are plenty of other more places where evaluation is more useful and fitting in the academy (e.g., tenure or hiring decisions). And so the principle I am suggesting can be applied to ideas in any state of development.

Posted by: Rob Kar | Mar 7, 2011 10:43:01 AM

Well Colleagues. We all know some folks "talk" just to hear themselves "talk." They engage in verbal masturbation and as the commentator rightly said, formulate their questions as they are "talking". From such, turn away.

Posted by: Arthur | Mar 7, 2011 10:35:49 AM

Thanks for your wonderful comments. I'm inclined to write a new post in a week or so that addresses them (and any additional comments that pop up in the interim). So stay tuned ....

Posted by: Adam Kolber | Mar 4, 2011 11:38:08 AM

Many questions/presentations would be substantially improved by following a very basic rule -- if you have not read the paper, you cannot ask questions. No exceptions even if the questioner might know something about the area.

Posted by: MS | Mar 4, 2011 10:21:02 AM

Good post, Adam. I hope you'll follow up with one on how to *answer* questions...

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 3, 2011 9:56:44 PM

Nice points all, especially #2. What do you think of the assertion that 40% of all questions to a presenter could be improved by a direct statement of disagreement? The questioner might not be committed to his disagreement but he could, humbly, play the role of someone opposing a particular claim, and explain why -- for the sake of the opportunity it gives a speaker to engage head-on and clarify, and the opportunity it gives an audience to be entertained by the spectacle of mild, very polite confrontation.

More of this would DEFINITELY have helped in my previous field, literature, where people were too shifty to disagree directly. But perhaps lawyers don't have this problem so much.

Jim vdH

(Quick invitation for prawfs with books: my new podcast (click the link) is a Your Name Here entity.)

Posted by: Jim von der Heydt | Mar 3, 2011 8:54:47 PM

I've learned the hard way that it's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

Posted by: Steve Bainbridge | Mar 3, 2011 8:01:13 PM

Along the lines of (2), here's one that I've learned the hard way: if you start out a question with, "Given X,..." where X is some proposition not addressed by the speaker which you believe to be true but is not indisputably true, be prepared to get interrupted right there by the speaker asserting not-X, such that you never actually get to your question. A better method might be something like, "You assert Y. But isn't that inconsistent with the fact that X?" The speaker will still challenge X but at least now you've gotten the chance to identify what the claimed inconsistency is.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 3, 2011 5:58:10 PM

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