• Hello there. I understand you’d like to ask a question of our honoured speaker.

    Ah, yeah—that’s why I’m in line.

    Excellent, would it be possible to get a preview of what you have in mind?

    A preview?

    Yeah, just a quick sampler of your question.

    Why?

    Well, the moderator’s asked me to make sure everyone’s fairly brief so that there’s time for lots of questions.

    Yeah, don’t worry: I’ll be quick.

    I believe you, but the moderator really wanted me to double check.

    Um, okay fine, I was going to say something like, Hi There. Dr. Hockey-Expert. Thank you for your presentation on the state of the National Hockey League. I agreed with a lot of what you had to say. Although, there were a few things I didn’t agree with—I don’t really see a problem with the offside challenge rule. I mean we want to get the call right, right? Like, if we don’t care about getting the calls right, what are we doing there? So, yeah, I enjoyed your presentation, but—

    Okay, sorry, can I stop you there?

    Um, okay, but I was just getting warmed up.

    I see that, yes. But I’m just noticing that you’ve already put in 20 seconds of introduction, and we haven’t even gotten to the content of your question yet.

    Right, so?

    Well, it’s just that—as I mentioned—there are a lot of people in line to speak to the presenter, and at the rate you’re going, your question is going to take up half of the Q&A session. Ideally, according to Sethiquette.com, it’s best to keep your question to no more than thirty seconds.

    Thirty seconds? How?

    Well, maybe you could trim your general thoughts on Dr. Hockey-Expert’s presentation and cut straight to your question.

    [Long sigh.] Fine, I was just being polite, but I’ll cut the intro.

    Awesome, thanks. So do you mind trying again?

    [Short sigh.] So, as I was saying, Thank you for taking my question, Dr. Hockey-Expert. I have three comments and a question for you—

    Right, sorry to interrupt again, but—I don’t know if you heard—just a minute ago in her introduction to the Q&A, the moderator requested that everyone just ask questions and not provide sermons?

    Yeah, I’m asking a question.

    Yes, but you’re also prognosticating three comments. That sounds suspiciously like a serm—

    What are you talking about? Three comments aren’t the same as a sermon.

    Right, of course, but I think the moderator was being playful with the term “sermon,” and just meant to request that everyone try to hone their commentary down to a single interrogative statement.

    But my comments are a vital set up for my question.

    I’m sure they are. And, if this were any other sort of conversation, I wouldn’t pester you about it, but unfortunately there are a lot of people who want to ask a question, and even more who want to hear Dr. Hockey-Expert speak, so if you talk for a long time, we’ll have fewer questions, and less time for Dr. Hockey-Expert to reply.

    Okay, fine, I’ll be quick. How’s this? So it seems to me that the NHL would benefit from more goal scoring. Like have you ever gone to a game and wished there were fewer goals? No! Goals are the name of the game. Actually, I was talking to my friend, Jane, about this yesterday. She had this funny idea that if the NHL allowed more goals—

    Okay, can you hang on again?

    What? What’s happening?

    Ah, yes, just as I thought. I believe you were in a bit of trance there while you were asking your question.

    How do you mean?

    Well, you were just kind of following your words obediently wherever they went without really checking to see if they were helping you get to the heart of your question.

    Yeah, I was really on a roll, wasn’t I? I felt like I was all by myself, just riffing, without anyone else around. It was pretty freeing actually.

    I can imagine. And, if this were a therapy session or a poetry slam, I’d be cheering you on. But, since we’re in this limited-time Q&A set up, I think it would be best if you tried to plan out your question to avoid unnecessary tangents.

    Unnecessary tangents? I was telling a funny story.

    Fair enough. If that story was vital to your introduction, please ignore my suggestion. But I suspect the story was more of a spontaneous aside than a planned expedition.

    Yeah, it just popped into my brain in the moment. So what?

    Well, it’s just that, if you indulge every passing sidetrack that pops into your brain while you’re at the microphone, it will be very difficult to find your way back to the point of your inquiry.

    That reminds me of the time my sister got lost on her way to work because she decided to take a shortcut around some construction, and she got mixed up which way the water was.

    Yeah, that’s funny. To avoid your sister’s fate, I suggest you create a quick verbal map for yourself of the key points you’ll need to establish your question.

    I had that before! But you said I couldn’t make all three of my comments before my question!

    Right, I see how that’s confusing. But I believe those three comments were going to be three distinct points. Whereas I’m looking for the key elements that will give your lone, specific question its best chance of being understood.

    I’m pretty easy on the ears, Sethcrates. I think I’ll be fine.

    I can’t argue with that. But you know how sometimes—when you ask a question at a Q&A—the expert misunderstands what you’re talking about, and so answers a different question.

    Yeah, it’s pretty embarrassing for them.

    Possibly, but also I submit that—if you don’t have a clear structure that leads ever-so-definitively to your final query—it can be hard for someone who doesn’t know you to realize exactly what you’re getting at.

    Fine, so what goes into this verbal map?

    Well, that depends. Let me ask you this: which one of these would be the best supporting material for your question: a joke, an anecdote, or a quick paraphrase of information?

    Yeah, all of those sounds good.

    Right, but for the purpose of this exercise, please pick just one option.

    Um, okay, well, I’m pretty funny, so I’ll go with a joke. There’s this one about an insomniac dog that I think’ll illustrate my question perfectly.

    That’s great. But, before you unleash your humour, there are two things to remember about jokes during the Q&A. First, since we’re not at a dinner party, you again want to be as succinct as possible.

    Check.

    And also, be aware that after you finish the joke, Dr. Hockey Expert—who’s pretty funny, himself—might want to retort.

    That’s fine.

    Right, but I bring it up because if the speaker does attempt to joke back, you may be tempted to ignore their retaliatory humour because you weren’t anticipating it. And that can make you look like you were in possession of a good joke, but not a sense of humour.

    I don’t like that. Hmm, okay, I’ll just outwit them right back.

    Fair enough. If a brilliant retort to their retort lands beautifully in your mind, please share it with everyone in the room. However, if nothing delightful arrives in your moment of need, there’s no need to panic and try too hard to come up with a scintillating reply. In fact, you can actually build rapport with both the speaker and the speaker-aligned audience if you let the speaker win the funny.

    But you said I wasn’t supposed to ignore their joke! Make up your mind, Sethcrates.

    Again, I apologize for the confusion. But there’s actually a third option between ignoring and winning, and that’s to simply laugh at the speaker’s joke, perhaps adding in a “Yeah, exactly.” You can then smile and continue on with your question.

    This is getting too complicated. Maybe I’ll do an anecdote instead.

    Great, that can be nice groundwork for your question. But just remember: in order to be brief, you want to avoid chasing tangents during your story. Try to stick to the essential beats of—

    I never chase tangents. Well, except maybe this one time when I was in a job interview, and the man interviewing me was so tall that he made me nervous. I don’t usually get nervous… well, except this other time when I was playing basketball, and I—

    Yeah, that’s good to hear that you don’t usually chase tangents, but when you’re in front of an audience, it can be easy to lose track of what you’re saying, so again I suggest investing in some serious planning of precisely what story parts will make it into your final draft. That should help you to avoid Sudden Tangent Syndrome.

    Yeesh. That sounds complicated, too. What are my other options?

    Well, you could provide a quick backgrounder of where your curiosity it lies, and then segue straight into your question.

    Actually, that’s not bad, because I have a lot of expertise as well as some pretty heroic accomplishments in the area I want to ask about, so I’d be happy to provide a good chunk of my background.

    Right, sorry, that’s not quite what I meant by backgrounder. Poor word choice on my part.

    But I like the idea!

    I understand. But the thing is: introducing yourself in such self-flattering detail can be risky. Unfortunately—unless those points of accomplishment or heroism are vital to establishing the legitimacy of the content of your question—they may sound suspiciously like resume and/or virtue signalling if they aren’t phrased just right.

    Okay, so how do you want me to map the background of my question?

    Well, let me ask you this: what provoked the question you want to ask?

    Well, I was confused when Dr. Hockey-Expert said we’d never see another Wayne Gretzky ever again, and I wasn’t sure if he meant that was because we would never see someone as talented again, or that today’s game wouldn’t allow for Gretzky’s skills to flourish as much.

    Fair enough—that’s a useful distinction. And, if you put a question mark on the end there, you’ve actually got a pretty clear and concise question all set to go already.

    Really? Wow, I’m awesome. How did I do that?

    Well, you first paraphrased the content that led to your curiosity, and then you segued quickly into your actual curiosity. Beautifully done.

    Awesome, so I’m all set then?

    Nearly. I just have one more concern. How are you going to close your question?

    Um, I dunno—I’ll know when I get there, I guess.

    Yeah, see, that’s an issue. A common problem amongst those suffering from MQS—

    MQS?

    Oh, yeah, sorry, Meandering Question Syndrome.

    Okay, go on.

    Well a common symptom is that—after all the work of getting into the line for the Q&A, and then listening to others pontificate—many MQSers will feel delighted to finally have their place at the microphone, and so won’t want to give it up. Consequently, even when the heart of their question has been clearly understood by everyone present, our noble MQSer will continue throwing words on a fire that is already blazing. They’ll just keep on meandering about the same point, and they won’t stop—

    Aren’t you kinda doing that right now?

    Oh, right you are. Thank you.

    Yeah, you’re welcome, Captain Hypocrite. So how do I avoid that?

    Well, the most effective system is to pay attention to your words as you’re saying them. When you hear yourself complete the goal of your question, get out of there. But, if you have trouble listening to yourself while you’re talking, watch the mouth of the person to whom you’re directing your query. If they stop their nodding and start taking a breath, that means they’re about ready to respond, which means they believe they understand the Q in your query, and it’s okay for you to STOP.

    All right, thanks, I will. Okay, I’m up next to ask a question. See you.

    Okay, good luck.

    Won’t need it, thanks… Hello there, Dr. Hockey-Expert. I have three comments and a question for you…

    Posted by SethBlog @ 8:15 AM

  • 7 Responses

    WP_Modern_Notepad
    • Natalie Anderson Says:

      Preach!
      Every.Conference.Ever. (or at least in my familiar realms of musicology and ESL teaching)

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thanks Natalie. Yeah, isn’t it amazing how every personality of gathering produces this same result?

    • Tom Durrie Says:

      Ha, ha. Very amusing, sir. Was this the result of an actual experience or have you been listening to the CBC again? (Just kidding.)
      I happened to be listening (re-listening) to some Bob and Ray the other evening; you have captured the essence of their kind of dialogue. May I recommend “The Komodo Dragon.”

    • SethBlog Says:

      Thank you, Tom. As much as I would like to blame CBC Radio for this one, it is indeed the result of a life long interaction with Q&A sessions that finally broke a camel’s back at a conference I recently attended.

      Hee, hee, I listened to the “Komodo Dragoon” by Bob and Ray, and I chuckled throughout. I am honoured by the comparison!

    • Thomas Charles McDonough Says:

      Ha, a very nice dissection of the foibles of the chronic timewaster in meetings. I like the creation of the labels associated with the symptoms of said timewaster and your adept stickhandling around his/her rationale for kidnapping the microphone for an extended period. Very enjoyable.

    • Marg Says:

      Dear Seth,
      This is a very entertaining blog, and it clearly points out a frustration that all conference organizers face, the ‘non question and answer segment’ of the program. Who has not gone to a presentation and the fifteen minutes at the end is taken up by one or two people who really don’t have a question, or do not actually present it because they are wandering about like our mythical friend in this blog.

      Is there an solution for this problem? It has been suggested that questions could be written down quickly after the presentation while the presenter takes a five minute break. Then all the relevant questions could be shortened if necessary, and read by the MC of the conference or session. True, people who would love to have a few minutes of ‘fame’ at the microphone will not get the opportunity, but for the sake of addressing more questions, and for the frustration level of the general audience and the presenter, this may not be a bad thing.

    • Aram McLean Says:

      Having recently attended loads of conferences around Europe thanks to my wife’s PhD enjoyment of academic pursuits (I serve as the driver and ‘bodyguard’, but take part in many of the talks nonetheless), I can vouch for the accuracy of this piece in the Old World as well, and not just in English. Very nicely written post, Seth. I quite enjoyed the chuckle combined with much head-shaking agreement.

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