Questionable Question Time - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


Questionable Question Time

Every now and then I attend a lecture where the speaker begins by saying something to the effect of, "Rather than give a prepared presentation, I'm going to open this session up for questions." Sometimes he will add a comment like, "This way I can tell you what you want to know rather than what I think you might be interested in hearing."

The questions are almost invariably slow in coming. The speakers routinely express surprise that few people are asking questions. In one such case the speaker seemed to be angry with the audience for not having questions. "Isn't anybody interested in what we're doing overseas?" he demanded with a bitter tone.

But ... what do they think we're going to ask? If you speak for half an hour on, say, the history of railroads, you may well bring many questions to my mind about details you skimmed over or why you think things happened the way they did. But if you just introduce yourself as an expert on the history of railroads and then ask if we have any questions on the subject, what am I going to ask? If I don't know anything in particular about the railroad history myself, all I could ask is the most general question, like, "What can you tell us about the history of railroads?" I'd be reluctant to ask such a vague question. It would make me sound lame, and in any case, you've just said you're not going to give a general lecture but want to answer specific questions. To ask a specific question, I would have to already know something about the subject. But if I know a great deal about the subject, I probably don't know what areas you know more about than I. So again, I don't know what to ask. If I ask some very specific, detailed question, like "What is your opinion about the charge that Mr Crozet was responsible for serious design flaws in the building of the Blue Ridge Tunnel by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the 1850's?' ... will you even know what I'm talking about?

Perhaps if the speaker is someone famous, the audience might know enough about him to formulate specific, relevant questions. Like, if he's a politician who is closely identified with some particular legislation, or a scientist famous for one particular discovery, the audience may have some questions about that. But then, it is likely that these questions are pretty obvious, and he could just tell us the answers to the obvious questions without waiting for someone to ask them.

I can't help but wonder if such a "question and answer lecture" isn't a product of laziness. It's surely a lot easier to just show up and say "I'll answer your questions" than to prepare a well-organized presentation. Of course in a question session no one can expect you to have pictures and diagrams to illustrate your point, or even to make your replies follow a a clearly thought-out plan. No one expects you to have carefully researched the details, because you presumably do not know what questions will be asked. So you can get away with no preparation at all. Just show up and wing it.

Or maybe I'm being overly cynical, maybe speakers who do this honestly think that it's the most effective way to tell the audience exactly what they want to know. But I have never seen it work. There is almost always a long, awkward silence, followed by some very general questions that people are clearly asking just because they know the speaker needs some questions and nobody else is asking any.

© 2008 by Jay Johansen


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