Here are some tips on Q and A etiquette.

We’ve come to the end of a really engaging public lecture. The speaker has just sat down and the organiser is looking around the room asking, “Does anyone have any questions they would like to ask (the speaker)?” There is a brief silence as the audience allows the meaning and implications of the speech to sink in.

One hand goes up, and tentatively, one person in the audience begins to speak. He begins with a disclaimer: “I am not too familiar with the topic, but….” He goes on to provide an explanation: “This really interests me because….” And finally he gets to the point: “What I would like to know is….” But then he goes back again: “I am not sure if you will be able to answer my question, but….”

By the end of this three-minute speech, the main speaker has lost the thread of the core question (if there was one) and before she begins to answer, she is tempted to ask, “So what was the question, again?” Most of us are familiar with the scene. Every popular lecture has its share of long-winded questions, although most moderators will begin the Q & A session with the warning, “Please keep your questions brief and to-the-point.”

The Q & A session is an important and sometimes interesting part of a public (or even closed) talk. Asking questions in such a forum is quite different from asking questions in a classroom, where a teacher will often tell you that there are no “silly questions,” (there aren’t) and it is actually important to ask every kind of question that might occur to you. Of course, there are rules both written and unwritten for conversation/discussion in a classroom, but in general, it is a space where we are encouraged (or should be) to speak freely as long as it relates to the topic at hand and leads to learning.

Public talks or special lectures, on the other hand, usually feature people who have made important contributions to a field or to society in general, and the Q & A allows us direct access, one on one, to their expertise and experience.

It allows us to turn the more general theme of the talk to an aspect of the person’s work that we are specifically interested in. It also allows us to satisfy a curiosity we may have had about their work or seek a clarification related to something else we have read from their work.

But while it does all this, it also provides a brief platform on which we stand visible as an individual in the crowd, receiving the undivided attention of the expert. This is what makes many people nervous about asking questions in a public forum, but if you are really interested in the topic and in the speaker, this is a nervousness you should try to get past.

Techniques

How do you frame questions that not only make sense but are also interesting? How do you get the expert to notice the question and really think about it in a way that he or she gives you an answer that is thoughtful and provides an added insight to you as well as the rest of the audience?

The first rule is to not ask a question just because you want to stand up and be noticed. Take notes during the lecture about what interested or intrigued or confused you, and if possible, even write down the question and make it as clear and direct as possible.

The second is to ensure that your question is really a question and not just a long-winded observation.

Third, try to keep your question as close to the topic of the lecture as possible, even if it is from another part of the speaker’s work or activity. Questions that are too far off from the theme of the talk may not interest the entire audience.

Fourth, make sure the question is not something you can get out of a book. Make use of the speaker’s presence to get a perspective that is normally difficult to get from the published material.

Finally, ask no more than one question at a time, so that there is time and space for others in the audience to participate as well. It’s crucial to remember that the Q & A session is as much of a public event as the lecture and so those asking questions need to be sensitive to the larger forum. Questions are important, and they need to be worded carefully, precisely, and clearly so that the best possible answers are elicted.