Wednesday, February 22, 2006

One question per customer

A good lecture stimulates discussion. Thought-provoking ideas are presented, new theories floated, and the audience gets to participate in the question-answer session in the end. The 20+10 -format that is in use in most scientific conferences and meetings doesn't really allow much discussion, especially since most presentations run over their time limit. It is also always the discussion time that gets culled when the whole conference is running late and the organisers are trying to make up the lost time so that the confrence dinner can start on time.

In normal lectures and talks there is more time for the speaker, more time for questions. However, it seems not everyone is familiar with the end-of-lecture question etiquette. Even though the convenor or chair often thanks the speaker and then declares the discussion "open", there are still rules that need to be followed. For a good reason, they don't declare a state of anarchy. The offenders usually fall into the following few categories.

1) Show-offs

These people are most often found in conferences. They feel the need to comment on every single talk they hear and tell everyone how it relates to their work (sometimes stretching it beyond all limits) and how the speaker should read his (yes, these are usually men) latest article on the topic, as it will be published in Nature next month. A subcategory of show-offs are final year postgraduate students who see every conference and lecture as a venue to promote themselves and hope that being thoroughly annoying and making lots of comments, people will be impressed and offer them jobs.


These people don't ask questions. They have "a couple of comments and remarks" to make. They want to give an alternate explanation to the speaker's data, or provide an alternative reading to the theoretical background, or just lecture for 10 minutes about their views on the topic.

3) Serial queryists or microphone-hoggers

This is by far the most annoying group. Once given the permission to ask a question, these people think they can keep asking questions until they run out of them. You are only allowed one question or maximum two short questions, and then you need to give other people their turn. These people exploit the kindness of the speakers; when after answering the first question they would politely ask "did that answer your question?", the serial queryists don't just say "yes, thank you very much", but rather seize the opportunity to keep going: "yes, thanks, and now to my second question...".

4) Rude people

There are only two acceptable answers to the above-mentioned "did the answer satisfy you" -question. In other words, it means "that's my answer, take it or leave it", with a slight undertone of "if you think I was unclear we should talk more about this over coffee, but let's move to other things". So, the accepted answers are "Yes, thank you very much" and "For the most parts, yes, but I'd like to continue about this topic over coffee". The latter is strictly reserved for senior scientists. Students have no right to "book" speakers for coffee company. They need to queue to get their turn to exchange ideas (and promote themselves in hopes of being offered a job). Needless to say, some people fail to follow this rule (the annoying show-off postgraduates often break both these rules), and use the rudest possible answer: "Not really, but I guess we don't have more time to go into this now". Which directly points to the fact that the speaker run 2 minutes over in the presentation and the discussion will need to be cut short.

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