How To Ask A Question At A Conference


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The last time you went to a conference, did you ask any questions? Were you curious about a technology and wanted to know more? Was there something that you didn’t quite get and needed an explanation? Congratulations. You’re in a quiet group of people that ask questions for knowledge. More and more, we are seeing questions becoming a vehicle for more than just knowledge acquisition. If you want to learn how to ask a proper question at a conference, read on.

1. Have A Question

I know it goes without saying, but if you’re going to raise your hand at a conference to ask a question, you should actually have a question in mind. Some people grab a microphone without thinking through what they’re going to say. This leads to stammering and broken thoughts that usually culminate in a random question mark here or there. This makes it difficult for the speaker to figure out what you’re trying to ask.

If you’re going to raise your hand, jot some notes down first. Bullet points help as does making a note or two. This is especially true if the speaker is answering questions before yours. If they answer part of your question before you get to ask it, you may have to reframe your thoughts. It never hurts to have an idea of what you’re going to say before you say it.

2. Look For Knowledge, Not To Make A Statement

The other side of the coin from the above recommendation of actually having a question is to make sure that what you’re asking is actually a question and not a statement. A great example of this is a video from Scott Bradner during a recent ONUG meeting:

I’m sure Scott has seen his fair share of statements masquerading as questions during his time. And I can’t disagree with him. Far too often, people seeking questions aren’t really asking to get information. Instead, they are trying to make a point about why they think they are right or why they disagree with the speaker. The point stops becoming a question and more of a soliloquy or soapbox. The most egregious will usually end this rant with an actual question along the lines of, “So, what do you think of my opinion?”

Please, at all costs, avoid this behavior. This is singularly the most annoying thing a speaker has to deal with. It’s enough to be questioned on your material, but it’s something else entirely to have to shift your thinking to someone else’s viewpoint while on stage. If you have a point you’d like to bring up with the speaker that is contrary to their thought process, you should do it after the presentation without people watching. Have a discussion and express opinions there. Don’t grandstand in front of the crowd just to satisfy your ego.

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3. Make Sure Your Question Wasn’t Already Answered.

This one’s a bit tougher. If you’re sitting in a session and you have a question, it’s important to make sure it wasn’t already asked and answered beforehand. This can be tougher if you have to duck out to take a call or you miss a section of the presentation. In these cases, you can ask for clarification or additional information but it would be better to ask after the session. Audiences tend to get a bit irritated if someone asks a question that was previously answered or that was covered earlier.

This one is probably the most forgivable of the question faux pas. People at conferences know that ducking out to deal with things is more common now. But if you are going to ask a question because you missed something, please make sure to address then when you ask. That helps everyone get the frame of reference for why you’re asking it. That will keep the audience on your side and less likely to boo you.


Tom’s Take

I ask lots of questions. I also answer them. And nothing irritates me more than having to deal with someone making a point during Q&A to try and make them look smarter than me. I get it. I have a hatred of keynotes and other speeches with no ability to get feedback. But at the same time, as Scott Bradner says above, the focus of the presentation is about the people presenting. It’s about the people doing the work and sharing the ideas. If you want to use Q&A time to pontificate about your position, then you need to volunteer to be a speaker.

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