Monday, January 28, 2013

Question Time

I've been watching a lot of talks lately, mostly because friends recommend them through some medium or another. In fact I've had a couple of oldish talks recommended to me by sources so unlikely to share common sources of information that I wonder what motivation led them both to the same location.

Anyway, most of these talks follow the conference format you'd be familiar with: person talks for 50-55 minutes, and then takes a few questions. For the most part, I'm referring to talks about thought provoking subjects rather than informational ones: how does meaning emerge from games rather than how to implement heap sort in language X. In informational talks, the question component is valuable. There's a good chance that several people in the audience will have missed the same thing, and if one person asks the question, everybody who didn't get it the first time round gets a second chance. Even if only one person didn't get it and they get their question answered, then they have a better understanding.

I'm not as convinced on the value of providing question time at the end of thought provoking talks. It is useful to the speaker, to see how people have interpreted the ideas, but it is less useful to the audience and the person asking the question in particular. Question time is not a discussion where extended dialogue can result in some sort of useful synthesis, it's a short question followed by a brief answer often to a misunderstood version of the question. It's bizarre to me that the first thing you would want to do after someone provokes thought is to immediately ask them to resolve the thought they just provoked. Often these questions are of the form "So does that mean...?" to which the answer is "No, no, what I mean is...". Maybe the person who asks it goes away and gives it more thought, or maybe they shrug and say "oh, fair enough". The worst thing you can do with an interesting line of thought is let it get influenced, hijacked or dismissed by someone else before you've given yourself enough time to see where it leads.

I think it would be far more useful at the end of such talks to offer five minutes of uninterrupted silence for reflection than to answer questions.


  1. Also, if you ever want to hear some shitty questions asked of fascinating speakers, listen to some of the Pritzker Military Library podcasts. You'll have someone talking about this amazing socio-political breakthrough that allowed an insurgency to be dealt with in a new way or something like that. And then that one guy in the audience (and it always sounds like the same nasal, idiotic guy) asks a question about: "So what kind of guns did they use?"

  2. I _really_ like the idea of silence. I think it would take guts and an unusual level of self-belief for a speaker to invite that.

    I actually sometimes like "what's your take on semi-related-X?" questions when asked of interesting speakers. They are hit and miss, but I'm often genuinely interested in a speaker's thoughts on more things than just the topic they chose today.

    Meta: concrete examples rock.


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