How to ask good questions

I think the biggest thing that put me off presenting on conferences or talks of any kinds is not about the presenting part — which, despite self-claiming to be struggling with stage fright, is something I have managed to deal with this year — but more towards dealing with the Q&A session. I presented at a conference late last year on something that I have worked very hard on, and something that was fully endorsed by my supervisor. The presentation went great. The Q&A though, if I could call it Q&A, was horrible. No one was moderating properly, and largely those commenting — yes, commenting instead of asking questions — were just that, commenting. There were no slivers of curiosity, no questions that could help me dig deeper into that piece of work. I felt like I was being grilled in a proposal defense, which at that time was apt because it was what a proposal defense was supposed to be. At the end of the supposedly Q&A session, I asked, “so, the questions?” and I was met with bored looks of experienced academics ready to pounce on the next early career researcher in line, like me.

I thought of better ways we could carry ourselves as presenters, askers, and moderaters as well when it comes to Q&A sessions. I find that in local conferences, a lot of people look forward to Q&A sessions as a way to flex how much they know, and how many complicated words they can fit in as the presenter stands in, drafting their answers mentally in their heads so as not to appear poorly knowledgeable in front of their audience, even though this is the field they have been pursuing in all their lives. This is something we need to change. I feel also local moderators are too ‘polite’ to step in when the audience does not ask, “not a question, just some comments”, or if their questions are not framed properly, long-winding, or go over the allocated time. As a presenter, we must also equip ourselves with the skill to diplomatically and eloquently answer questions — something that I myself also am currently trying to improve on.

Denise Yu has some good illustrated guidelines on how to ask good questions during a Q&A session:

This post initially started as I had wanted to write about how Nick Cave answers questions on his blog The Red Hand Files, where fans would submit questions and he would answer with such poetic thoughtfulness. I thought that if I were to present again, I would probably prepare something like this, maybe on a Padlet, and if ever someone wants to say “more of a comment” instead of a question, that’s where I should direct them.

Nick Cave was sent in a nasty question today by a homophobic fan who asked him if he gets “tired of all the pretentious fat lesbians who enjoy your music?”. He answers on how anonymity does not shelter you from spreading your hate to another:

I do not believe that your anonymity protects you, any more than I believe the anonymity of the hate trolls on social media protects them. I feel that there are psychic pathways that exist between us all, and that the negativity we create eventually finds its way back to us.

I especially like how Cave frames this answer in dealing with people full of hate, that it’s a trait resulting from their limited experiences, and not one that defines them, “your words extend only to the margins of your own individual evolution” — and at the same time, Cave centres this around his other fans, “my fans are smart enough and sufficiently forgiving” — who might still have some stirring hateful thoughts inside themselves due to their surroundings — and their capacity to be so much better:

I think my fans are smart enough and sufficiently forgiving to understand that your words extend only to the margins of your own individual evolution.

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