Why do people ask questions at public events?

by on March 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm in Education | Permalink

Ian Leslie, a loyal MR reader, asks a perceptive question:

Does anybody have a theory about the length of questions during the Q&A sessions that follow lectures/talks? Is there a relationship between length of question and age, gender, status, place in queue? Why do some people make rambling statements disguised as "questions"? How can moderators avoid such abuse of the process (pleas to keep questions short don't seem to have any effect)?

I see a few uses for public questions:

1. The "make a public statement and show them" motive.

2. The "somehow feel a need to void" motive.

3. The "signal intelligence" motive.

The "really want to know" motive is not absent altogether but I doubt if it is primary.

Anecdotally, I have found that men wearing suspenders are most likely to ask longish, rambling questions.

I am not sure moderators wish to avoid "abuse" of the question and answer process.  Perhaps the process is part of what draws people to the talk.

It matters a great deal if people have to write out questions in advance, or during the talk, and a moderator then reads out the question.  That mechanism improves question quality and cuts down on the first three motives cited.  Yet it is rarely used.  In part we wish to experience the contrast between the speaker and the erratic questioners and the resulting drama. 

My favorite method for giving "talks" is to offer no formal material but to respond to pre-written questions, which are presented and read off as the "talk" proceeds.

1 Chris March 10, 2010 at 3:23 pm

[i]It matters a great deal if people have to write out questions in advance, or during the talk, and a moderator then reads out the question.[/i]

This would require that people are already completely familiar with what the person there is talking about. Why bother having the talk if you’re presuming everyone knows enough to ask questions about it? Wouldn’t it be more efficient just to skip to the questions?

2 anon March 10, 2010 at 3:50 pm

I was recently at an event where a phone number was displayed, and people had to text questions to the moderator at that number.

It worked great–it kept the questions (very) short and let the moderator do a bit of screening.

I don’t use SMS, but I suspect I am an anomaly in that regard.

3 Michael Nielsen March 10, 2010 at 3:58 pm

If I commit to asking a question at the end, I find I concentrate better during the talk. This doesn’t work for very good talks (which are already easy to concentrate on), but for all but the worst talks I find it helps. It is sometimes difficult to reconcile the desire to do this with the desire to have the best possible Q&A period.

In a seminar series I used to run I gave out bottles of wine to those audience members who asked the most questions. The number of questions grew steadily each week, topping out at 65 questions (in a 90-minute slot) before I stopped using the wine as an inducement. Numbers then held steady at around 20 questions per talk, enough for a lively conversation, and to ensure talks were exceptionally clear.

4 Sean P. March 10, 2010 at 4:06 pm

When I saw Joseph Stiglitz speak in Seattle last month, the moderator was sure to ask everyone to ask their questions “in the form of a question”. This advice was promptly ignored by the first person to the microphone, and the second person started with “I have three questions…” So much for that idea.

My own anecdotal experience: the quality of the questions is inversely proportional to the size of the crowd.

5 Vic Sarjoo March 10, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Status seems to have an impact. My observations:

Lower-status-OUT-group members tend toward rambling ‘statement-questions’. Around half of these lower-status-OUT-groupers seem to make position statements that the LSOG wishes to signal, usually to other similarly aligned out-group members. The other half of the LSOG’s seem to want to become part of the discussion, and will often try to ask too many (often obscure or highly specialized) followup questions before being asked to sit down.

Lower-status-IN-group members who ask rambling questions are often seeking approval and are attempting signal fitness with the higher-status dais member to engage in some form of later transaction with that dais member. This lower-status-IN-group member is auditioning. Many over-audition…obsequiously and ramblingly.

While a good percentage of ALL speakers people are simply unskilled at public speaking or controlling their emotions and fear, grief, or anger can induce rambling, it has seemed to me that status very often signals to me the brevity of the questioner’s query with great accuracy.

6 Alex March 10, 2010 at 4:15 pm

So what is the guy trying to signal by wearing suspenders?

7 Biomed Tim March 10, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I like Vic’s observation about status groups. On a side note, I’ve often wondered the same about people who call into to NPR or C-SPAN.

8 JRP March 10, 2010 at 4:46 pm

I’ve read that the speaker loses a lot of goodwill if he uses his power as moderator cut short or dismiss questions, even where the audience is not inclined to agree with the questioner.

9 Amy March 10, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Some of the mindless rambling gets cut down at events where the moderator exhorts (and sometimes later reminds) questioners to “Please phrase your question in the form of a short question.” It gets a laugh, but it also lets people know that long speeches are frowned upon.

10 8 March 10, 2010 at 5:33 pm

It takes skill to be succinct. Few have this ability, usually it is achieved via editing. How many people edit their question in their head? Plus, some people probably get to the mike and still haven’t formed a complete thought.

11 billb March 10, 2010 at 6:15 pm

Twitter, SMS, or email seems like a fantastic way to handle audience questions these days. I was at an ARPA-E even in DC last week where folks were asked to keep their questions short and numerically singular, and the majority did. However, several folks would ramble on or ask multiple questions. Making them write them down and send them in to the moderator would have made a huge difference.

12 Kat March 10, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Silas, I’ll admit to being one of those assholes too! Coming up and saying “hi, I’m a huge fan” is awkward and boring; asking a question, geting a partial answer, and then coming up to the speaker afterward to chat about the topic feels less so. Especially in places where I am one of the out-group and will get crowded out otherwise. Also, yes, if a speaker doesn’t touch on an issue that I think s/he should have mentioned, I will probably ask a question just to bring it up, particularly if it’s one some organization I’m part of cares about, and not just me personally. (I’m getting banned from all the decent lecture halls now, I know it.)

When I am a speaker I really like getting questions, even though I expect the above motivations. I’d be happy to just answer questions the whole time instead of preparing a structured talk! Riffing on questions is a lot less work, it’s fun to have the session go in directions I don’t expect, and giving good impromptu answers looks impressive to boot. (As long as I am admitting to being an asshole, I may as well go all the way…) It makes me break out in a cold sweat when no one asks anything; I’m afraid the audience didn’t even think I was worth paying attention to. But I really appreciate skilled moderators who are able to gracefully cut people off.

13 Rob March 10, 2010 at 8:52 pm
14 Ryan Vann March 10, 2010 at 9:27 pm

I think a better question might be why people attend public events at all.

15 Ron March 10, 2010 at 10:02 pm

When people at “Google Talks† ask questions, they are usually short and to the point. They also sound as if they’re scripted. Maybe that’s because the IQ of Google employees resemble telephone area codes.

16 Don the libertarian Democrat March 10, 2010 at 10:25 pm

You do realize that, from this point forward, men wearing suspenders are going to be assiduously avoided by speakers during the Q & A session. Can you live with that result?

17 kebko March 10, 2010 at 11:22 pm

While I agree with all the reasons given here, I think there may be an innocent reason why low status or outsider attendees tend to ramble or make statements. It may be their only access to the speaker. The higher the status of the attendee, the more likely they are to be able to address tangential issues with the speaker in private.

18 Shyam March 10, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Hi. This is only a minor observation but I couldnt help but comment on this one. I have noticed in international fora American students and people in general tend to ask longer questions. I am told there are graded for classroom participation and this seems to stay with them for long years after.

Now i think this would fall under the ‘signal intelligence’ motive, but in an extremely narrow system.

19 Don the libertarian Democrat March 11, 2010 at 12:29 am

I do not and never have worn suspenders. I dress like Jerry Garcia. I guess you’re insulting me, but I did laugh.

20 Ben Kalafut March 11, 2010 at 1:14 am

It seems like ideologues of any age and the elderly in general are more likely to make long statements instead of to ask questions.

In the latter case, perhaps a bit of embarrassment–“Please keep your questions direct”–will be a deterrent. Who knows about the former.

At an APS (American Physical Society) Section meeting I once “got into it” with another audience member about such a “question”. The speaker was a representative from industry talking about careers for physicists in industry and the “questioner” was faculty from a university. I interrupted: “Where’s the question?”, to which the reply was “I’m getting to it”, to which I said “I’m here for a talk by ____(speaker)_____, not you.” I can’t speak to whether or not this had any lasting effect on the man’s behavior, as I haven’t seen him since–has anyone else done something similar and noticed a change?

21 Kevin Burke March 11, 2010 at 1:49 am

Five types of bad question askers

I wrote about this about two months ago and saved it in Drafts – better late than never I guess…

22 Ricardo March 11, 2010 at 4:26 am

There are also cultural norms regarding this. In the Middle East, I have noticed that audience members feel that they have equal status with the speakers, and will often go on 10 minute soliloquies with their view of the topic the lecturer spoke about. This is to be expected, and hence there is often a 1-2 hour Q and A period. This has held true for events in Cairo, and events in Washington, DC in Arabic attended mostly by Arabs. However, these are generally smaller audiences, about 30-50 people, and somewhat academic topics.

That sounds like any academic seminar, at least in economics. Since you say these events are mostly academic and smaller in nature, what happens at the larger and less academic events? I would have guessed that Arabs are more rather than less deferential to high-status people than Americans (it’s certainly true of most East Asian cultures, but I have no first-hand experience of Arab culture).

23 FelixM March 11, 2010 at 6:46 am

I was at a talk by a law prof last night

the organizers demanded that questions be put in writing. the result trivial questions and a boring q and a session

I put a question that probed the professor’s underlying philosophy. Wasn’t put. (My friend reckons because the organizer didn’t get the point)

my solution is to have a group of three or so people to grill the speaker – this means the questioners would know their stuff and could ask follow up questions. (But my friend reckoned this would be too difficult for most speakers)

24 Deceptology March 11, 2010 at 12:20 pm

When Roger Ebert led sessions at the World Affairs Conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder for his “Cinema Interruptus” series (where he’d show a film and stop it for discussion whenever an audience member shouted out) there was a much more interesting discussion and a lot less rambling. Something about stopping a classic film and then posing a question inhibited the idiots, I presume.

In other lectures, I’ve found these factors increased the awful factor (“awful” meaning rambling, no question, incoherence, toadyism, confrontation, multisyllabic vomit):

– a large audience
– a famous person
– academic audience instead of business audience
– a microphone

25 Eric Rasmusen March 11, 2010 at 3:48 pm

I know my tendency is always to make the questioner look as good as possible, probably because I’m used to teaching, where one wants students to ask questions *especially* when they’re confused. Maybe in public situations it would help if the speakers came down hard and said things like, “You’ve been speaking for three minutes and I still don’t have any idea what you mean, and neither do you,” or “That’s a really stupid question.”

26 Cory March 12, 2010 at 2:40 am

my stereotypical asker of questions at public events:
a salt and pepper moustache
hair like the guy from family ties (just the top hair)
a dark blue button up shirt with brown buttons, tucked in…
..to faded levis
and a grey pair of new balance 990s

27 D. Watson March 12, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Why did you just now?

28 geo geller March 14, 2010 at 3:19 am

thanks for asking this question 🙂 ok… so i hate the we vs them concept of q & A its so limiting and leaves me frustrated and wanting more – its not a conversation- we are not on the same side of the table but opposing and imposing – we need to re-invent these type of things, panels or talks – i have for years tried to get people to think in terms of conversations in the round rather then the tired school model of teacher at front of class with students seated – one of the few things that has remained the same for last 100 years – its called education – oh… but that is another pet peeve and story – anyway there is no conversation in q & a – you ask… maybe one question ijf you’re lucky… it go, you maybe get an answer but you/i want more… it rarely leads to aconversation or follow up with audience participation

i live in nyc and i have to tell you we have made an art of the dumbest questions, some roll yer eyes back in the head dumb empty look-at-me ma questions ever

so i figured damn if people are going to ask dumb question then i can at least ask a question that i am thinking about and would even go so far as raise my hand first thinking well maybe i can at least get myself or somebody else thinking that its ok to ask a question that has some something to chew on – i try and ask question like a doc filmmaker, which i am, that leads the person to think and go beyond just answering the question but hopefully get them to delve deeper into an unexpected area – also i try to ask question i am interested in and if it was a one on one face to face conversation and out of that frustrated experience i found myself playing in the documentary moving/still/audio image maker field

i have had long conversation with doc filmmakers about questions and what they are looking for – well there is more but… i do try to make a point of asking conference and presenters to think about conversations rather then Q & A – even tried with my dense friend and conference promoter jeff pulver to do this in his conferences but alas and alac to no avail too – i wound up talking to myself 🙂

some food for thought as to why people ask questions – some wanted to be recognized, others want to hear themselves speak, others want to impress people with how unthinking they are, others like me might have been thinking of something along these line which is why i come to hear people – or maybe i have something that might be interesting that i want to add to the conversation like this comment – and in the end who knows what goes on in the mind of people – food for imagination – why do people write comments like this – go figure – g-oh

29 above ground pool covers July 29, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I guess that’s why they sent their troops over there. To change the political ideology, to make sure democracy is being ran and of course, to make a benefit. Poor people.

30 Leslie Gabriella August 16, 2010 at 5:43 am

You can bet that that doesn’t happen. Town meetings are an illusion. All of the questions are “approved” and sometimes the ones asking the questions are planted in the audience.
unlocked cell phones

31 Whole Life Insurance August 26, 2010 at 10:17 am

lol, online or in real life, people have always asked advice, and then still went ahead and did what they wanted. Most arent’ looking for true “advice” but merely confirmation of their own beliefs.

32 SEO January 18, 2011 at 4:00 am

Well the best thing to do is to call the Watchtower and ask them directly. Have the invitation on hand in case they ask any information regarding it. You may also go to the official website and find the phone number and other contact information.

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