One great aspect of Objectivist Conferences is the opportunity to ask questions of the intellectuals presenting their ideas, immediately following their talks.  Coming up with a thoughtful question can add depth to the topic, and help express misunderstandings that might be shared by a lot of the attendees listening.  However, Q&A sessions have a limited amount of time, so if you’re going to take it up with your question you might as well do a good job.  I personally find it pretty intimidating to get up and ask a question in front of the large audience, however I can tell you a lot from an audience perspective.

Write Down Your Question and Read It Aloud

The time to think up your question is not when the microphone is before your lips.  Not having a clearly formulated question can lead to a lot of those “ummm”… “ahhh” moments, which most of us strive to avoid.

I’m not saying that I think most attendees do this, but if you’re reworking your most eloquent presentation until the final moments before its your turn often your question comes off as made up on the spot.  Think about how much time the speaker spent crafting their talk, structuring it to keep you engaged and to help you inductively come to conclusions.  If you take this same care for your own questions, I think you’ll find it is rewarding to have a speaker say, “that’s a great questions, here’s what I think…” instead of “wait, I’m not following?”

A Declarative Statement is Not a Question

Questions should start with words like “who”, “what”, “where”, “when” and “how”.  Why, you ask, is this important?  A declarative statement preceding the actual question has a bunch of usability issues for the person being asked:

Unpacking Incorrect Premises

If a declarative statement is made and the speaker doesn’t agree, he’ll feel responsible for responding first to any errors in that statement, before even getting to the question.  This can distract from the actual question if it takes longer than 15-20 seconds to deal with, and leaves a lot of speakers asking, “what was the question again?”

Wasting the Audience’s Time

Yes, you probably are a pretty smart cookie but the Q&A session is not the time to show off.  Your question really should only require a sentence to express, which is another reason why writing it down is a good idea.  Helping the speaker to expand on a particular part of their talk, or bringing to light a perspective that can add depth is the goal – not making a speech about what you think is right.  People didn’t pay to hear you talk, if you want them to then consider offering your own speech (elsewhere).

Get Up There and Ask

Finally, I want to encourage anyone reading this to just get up there and do it.  It might not be perfect, but I think if you try to follow this advice it will help you put a bit more thought into your question, and that can’t hurt.  Remember, conferences are generally benevolent places where people are learning together – so the best thing we can do as attendees, staff, speakers, and those asking questions is help each other become better at understanding the concepts being presented.

Looking forward to many good questions in the coming days!  These are just my initial thoughts, I’d love to hear what you think makes for a great question following a lecture in the comments.