How not to ask questions at a conference

I went to Pycon last month (my first conference ever!) The conference was totally awesome and I met a lot of cool people. But I was also pretty appalled at the question asking at the end of each talk. Here's some stuff you should keep in mind before you ask a question at a conference.

  • Ask questions that you believe would be relevant to at least a third of the people in the room. Otherwise, avoid the temptation to show off your specialized knowledge to the room and just ask the speaker afterwards. Most of them are approachable on Twitter, email, or just in the hallways.

  • Ask only one question. If you have more than one question, pick the best and ask the other one in private later. Or ask your first question and then go to the back of the line. Other people have questions to ask as well and may not get to ask one.

  • Avoid buzzword bingo. It feels like lots of people walk up to the microphone just so the room can hear them mention some buzzword that indicates they know something about the topic. If I am running a Scrum team should I use Soak testing? How does Node.js influence the development of the PyPy project? If you wouldn't ask the question without a room full of people present, then don't ask.

  • Ask a question, don't make a comment. Talk time is for the speaker to be the expert, not you. Write up your comment as a blog post and post it for everyone to read later.

  • Be brief. After a talk, time is precious and many people may have questions for the speaker, so don't ramble about how nice it is to finally see the speaker in person, or how enlightening the talk is, even if those things are true. It's a matter of courtesy to everyone else in the room.

There is an easy solution to bad questions that no one has bothered to implement yet. Have people submit questions anonymously and have the speaker or a moderator choose which ones to answer, or have the room vote using a tool like Google Moderator. This will solve the problem of the question asker-bragger asking a trivial question.

The other solution is to charge money to ask a question, which could go to whatever cause you want. If enough people in the room have the same question they can contribute to the fee to ask the question and have it asked.

Update: There's some good discussion on Hacker News. "If the question you're asking makes you look smart, there's a good chance you're being a douchebag."

Also my friend Alan Shreve wants to know if it's appropriate to push back if the speaker dodges your question.

29 thoughts on “How not to ask questions at a conference

  1. Reuben

    Amen. I am usually wanting to crawl under my chair by the second question. That said I am too socially crippled to ask the totally reasonable question I have in my head, so I can only be so critical :)

  2. Charles Forsyth

    “or how enlightening the talk is, even if those things are true”

    I’d make an exception for that one, in exceptional cases. It’s a useful compliment for the speaker. I was at a conference two years ago where a graduate student (presenting on behalf of a group of students) gave a brisk, coherent, and indeed enlightening talk, showing how to solve a previously messy problem by inventing a small, clean formal language to express it, then implementing that language concisely in a remarkably effective way. Superb work. It made the conference worthwhile. I meant to tell her so after the talk, but fortunately a Famous Computer Scientist said as much before his question, which I am sure was much more valuable.

  3. chad

    I feel like another important one is often reference KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid). I’ve been to too many conferences where some guy wanders up to the mic and asks a 3 part question that takes him a full minute to ramble off. Often times leaving the panel/speaker scratching their head and looking around confused.

    If you can’t fit it in a sentence or two, simplify the question or see the guy afterwords.

  4. Hayden Jones

    I like how you do something for the first time then outline a list of rules for everyone to follow. I’m not saying the rules are, I’m just saying you’re irrelevant.

    Great post, shitty attitude.

    1. kevin Post author

      Thanks Hayden. I’ve been going to talks for at least five years now dating back to college, and have had a lot of these problems before. I was just surprised to see the same problems I’ve had with academic talks, classroom talks etc pop up at a conference :)

      1. Another Mike

        Exactly. I need to post this on the board outside the conference room at work. Because, let me tell you, we see the exact same stuff. I would add, “If there is read-ahead material, read it,”

    2. Yet Another Mike

      I couldn’t disagree with you, Mr Jones, any more. Anyone who’s been to a conference has experienced what he addressed. The number of conferences he’s been to doesn’t seem to detract from the usefullness of what he’s posted.

      Maybe presenters could briefly outline the rules prior to opening the fllow for questions.

      Even with good common sense posts like Kevin’s, and even if speakers laid out the rules prior to opening up for questions, there are going to still be “the one’s” who proceed in a direction of obliviousness or maybe entitlement…maybe making the effort as futile as my reply to you…but still we try, right?

  5. matthew fedak

    Totally agree, even at regular PHP user groups I still hear people ask either really specific or unrelated questions about topics covered, most of the time they know the answer already.

  6. Andrew

    Another tool that I see employed far too rarely is picking moderators with the gumption to cut off blowhards. Great moderators = great panels.

  7. Jon

    RE pushing back: depends. If you’ve met the other criteria, especially about the question being relevant to lots of other people there, then by all means push back. You’ve probably exposed an issue that the audience may well need to know about.
    But if not, then don’t. Well done, you’ve managed to nail them on the one fringe issue that almost no one’s heard of and they really don’t have time to delve into it on stage. Pressing them for an answer elevates you beyond douche at this stage. You are now Comic Book Guy.

  8. anon

    Re: Update: If a question relevant to a significant portion of the audience is asked, extracting additional value from the presentation, then wouldn’t the inquirer “look smart”?

    If no one asked “dumb” or irrelevant questions the speaker would close up shop before the relevant ones are distilled.

  9. Jan

    The use of a moderation tool/process is an interesting idea. As well as improving the general quality of the questions, it will allow those people that may be too shy or overawed to have their voices heard.
    Unfortunately, this is not localised to conferences, this type of behaviour is rife in daily life. One way to overcome this in the office place is for the group to know the rules up front – no exceptions. This needs support from the top down. Even if the Director goes off on one, then the group has the collective confidence to bring his buzzword, self important, self promoting rants to an end.

  10. Ruben Berenguel

    Even if your commenting guidelines are sound and would probably help a lot the audience, it’s amazing how different they are to the “real life” cases in my former field, mathematics. Almost in every conference/talk I’ve been, all your points have been broken.


  11. Simion

    There is nothing wrong with asking questions which show off your knowledge. Contrary to what you say, the main purpose of question time at a conference is to let the attendees ‘position’ themselves amongst their peers.

    If you get a good answer to your question from the speaker then you have done two jobs. The first of course showing off how much you know and getting the speaker to talk about your question.

    1. Yet Another Mike

      You’re the guy that this post was designed to shut down at conferences.

      Who benefits from an individual showing off after an expository presentation that most people attend to hear what the subject matter expert has to say, not the audience.

      However, if you truly are a subject matter expert, it would me much more useful if you were to give a presentation on your area of expertise. Then, after you’ve worked to prepare your presentation, and maybe even volunteered your time for the betterment of your peers, you can entertain the guy who would interject a bunch of showboating nonsense during the Q&A time.

  12. Jordan Elpern-Waxman

    I would add ‘technical support’ to the type of questions that should be banned. I’m amazed when people get up and ask the speaker to solve their personal technical problem in front of a room of people who really don’t care.

    Btw I have been to plenty of events where tools like the ones you describe were used to filter questions. Unfortunately they’re still the minority.

  13. Rob Ratcliff

    At the GeoInt conference, a moderator accepted questions via text messaging and chose the best ones for the speaker in real time. That worked out pretty well.

  14. phil

    At the end of one of my recent talks I had a question like this: “I have a statement – you can’t use your device because it isn’t certified.” First, this is not a question. Second, she was wrong. Pretty sure she was a vendor pissed off that I was presenting how to do something for $20 versus $600+ from her company.

  15. Alex Cole

    I have to disagree with the statement comment – I’ve presented at conferences and I’ve meet some very famous computer scientists who have presented at vastly more than I possibly ever will. One gave a talk on giving talks and argues that the 50 minute talk and 10 minutes questions is wrong – he gives a 20 minute talk with 40 minutes discussion. Contrary to popular belief the speaker is NOT there to educate you but to DISCUSS their work. It isn’t a lecture – read their paper if you just want to know what they did. People go to conferences to network, presenters just as much as you. 40 minutes of the best minds in your field discussing YOUR work, making comments, pointing out flaws, and suggesting improvements – that worth months or years of research time alone. If you as an audience member don’t like it, tough frankly!

  16. Pingback: How not to ask questions at a conference - Monday By Noon

  17. Brad Czerniak

    Really great post — I totally agree. First just a quick comment and then a question.

    Comment: I think the unordered list isn’t the ideal markup here; if it were ordered, people could refer to “point #3″ and so forth. Also, periods ending list items is a real pet peeve of mine.

    And now the question: Instead of Google Moderator, could the room-voting tool be an app built with coffeescripted node.js and mongodb?

  18. Pingback: Asking Questions at Conferences

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