How To Ask & Answer Questions At Conferences

I've been spending the week at EuroPython 2015 in the amazing city of Bilbao, Spain (it's super hot). The talks have been fantastic and the people have been welcoming and kind. The Python Community know how to run a good conference.

One Tiny Problem

But I'm still seeing an issue with conferences that is never addressed: Q&A after talks are broken. I'm talking about the problem with how people are posing questions to speakers. At least twice a conference, I hear questions that are more like statements:

"This isn't really a question it's more of a comment..."

Or questions that are actually just assertions of people's supposed superior knowledge:

"I think you're wrong, why didn't you just do it this way..."

There is definitely a problem in how these questions are given. I think addressing it will help improve the conference experience for everyone. This is especially important for the speakers.

Admittedly, I did get a bit ranty about the subject.

I always fail to properly vocalise or describe what I mean on Twitter. I wanted to take some time sharing my thoughts in a longer blog post.

Talking Is Super Scary

I think people tend to forget how terrifying it is to speak in front of large audiences. Not everyone is super confident and delivering great talks is hard. For example: in eighteen hours I will be delivering a talk on a subject I am passionate about, to one of the biggest audiences I've ever seen. The fear is made all the more worse by the fact that I consider these people my peers. I want to share my experiences and learn from them. I want to at least get a bit of validation that I've done something right. This is directly related to the problem of imposter syndrome that wracks the thoughts of main engineers. This subject could cover a blog post of it's own, so I shan't go into it today.

Personally I cannot think of many feelings greater than the relief of wrapping up a talk and asking "Does anyone have any questions?".

This feeling evaporates the instant you get a question that is hard to answer or isn't a question at all.

How Should I Ask Questions?

We need to learn when it is appropriate to ask a question in front of a large audience.

Let's talk about the examples I gave:

"This isn't really a question it's more of a comment..."

(Disclaimer: I've been guilty of saying this 😞)

The simplest solution on how to ask this question publicly is to not. Just don't do it. That isn't a Q&A question. If you have a comment about someone's talk or the work they've done the best way to share that is by talking to them afterwards. You'll be able to be more conversational about your opinion. You won't be putting the speaker on the spot to reply with an answer.

"I think you're wrong, why didn't you just do it this way..."

Once again the simplest solution here is just not to say this over a microphone. If you think it is appropriate then check yourself: what if you are wrong? How would you feel on the spot in front of people when you think you're right? Do you feel this is appropriate?

You are not proving anything by trying to demonstrate your expertise over the speaker to the audience. You won't magically gain fame or respect by being aware of a better solution. Don't ever tell someone they're wrong in this tone, there are far more appropriate ways.

So how should you be asking these type of questions?

I've got a few suggestions for you:

"What's your opinion on XYZ? Have you used it? It's an alternative to ABC.."

This is actually a question. It also gives the speaker the chance to talk about their experience instead of just replying with a direct answer.

"Do you think XYZ is a better way of doing this?"

Offer the speaker to give their opinion. Don't ask if they've done something before assuming or making sure that they have. It's much more pragmatic and it has a far friendlier tone. You should be prepared to explain what "ABC" actually is in these situations.

Always ask a question and always leave it open ended enough for the speaker.

How Should I Answer Questions?

It's not just the asker who should understand how to deal with questions, the answerer should also be aware.

In my experience the best thing I've realised in these situations is: It is okay if you do not have an answer.

The atmosphere of the stage and all the eyes looking on you can make you feel like you need to deliver. You simply don't have to. It's totally fine if you don't. You've already done a brilliant job standing up and talking. Realise this and you'll feel much more comfortable.

If someone asks me a question that I don't know the answer too I find the best answer follows a formula like this:

"I'm not entirely sure how to answer that but if you want to grab me afterwards or give me your email, I'd be happy to chat with you about it."

This type of reply is humble and human: you don't know everything and that's totally okay. The asker will feel much more satisfied too.

Be Humble

This blog post is by no means extensive and I've not addressed the situation fully but I hope it takes a step in the right direction. Tell me if I'm wrong.

Valeria Aurora has a great suggestion for an alternative way to deliver questions and I think this style has a lot of promise. We should be trying out new ways to improve the Q&A format. I also think our community need to accept that people don't know everything and we should not be trying to be better than each other. Let's learn together instead!

So in summary:

Be humble about what you think you know and check yourself before asking questions.

And for speakers:

It is totally fine if you don't have an answer. 😁

You're already way more courageous than most.

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