Any questions for the speaker?

Over the past few days, we have all heard our fair share of audience questions. As most of you may know, the main purpose of these questions is to enhance the audience’s understanding of the presented information. In many cases, this simply results in the need for the further explanation of a certain graph or equation. In addition to this, questions also offer the audience a chance to have their say on the speaker’s work. In this case, these questions may provide the answer to a specific analytical challenge the speaker may have or offer an alternative viewpoint on a given aspect of the speaker’s project. Essentially, a good question and answer session can, and should, benefit both the audience and the speaker.


However, as I sit through more and more talks, it is becoming increasingly apparent that “question time” is fast developing into “opinion time”. Instead of asking questions, conference goers have instead used the short time set aside for questions as a chance to drop their opinion on the room. For instance, in one talk I attended, an audience member raised his hand to ask a question. Unfortunately, no question was asked, instead, he preceded to stand up, turn his back to the speaker and address the entire room about his view for the need to use proper terminology in both papers and talks. Unsurprisingly, this outburst stirred the audience and removed any momentum from the question and answer session. This is not how questions should work. If you want your opinion on the topic of the session to be heard, or would like your work to be represented, then submit an abstract and prepare a talk like everyone else. This may seem obvious but “question time” is for questions, not opinions.


In saying this, this is not a piece advocating the scrappage of questions after talks. After all, they are a fantastic way of critically analysing how the science has been communicated. What I am saying, however, is that we should reconsider how we, as audience members and conference goers, can make better use of our time on the microphone. We should try to make a concerted effort to use questions as a way of enhancing science and imparting knowledge. Not as a way of seizing the spotlight and having your own piece of the session.