Asking Questions at Talks: Curiosity is Best When Shared
Imagine that you put in lots of time to prepare for a talk, honed it down, practiced it, stood nervously, went brilliantly through your talk as planned, and bamm! No questions. I’ve had that occur – multiple times. Not getting questions feels like a door has been slammed in my face. I feel cheated, because someone else may have caught some detail that I missed in my work and that would improve my science. So, I have an informal rule of thumb: the audience has a responsibility to make sure that every speaker is asked questions by at least two people.
Asking questions at the end of a talk is an important skill for scientists and for the scientific enterprise itself. In my experience, science is most insightful when there’s input from different people. Imagine going to a concert with 100 trumpets. Not nearly as interesting as a typical symphony with different instruments. Science is like that. My best structural biology insights come when there are questions from the biologists and biochemists. So, even if you are not an expert in the same field, your perspective is of value.
Here are some tips to overcome common reasons for not asking questions:
- I don’t have a question ready. Try to plan in advance. As the speaker goes through their talk, my notes are a list of questions I have. If stuck, ask practical questions. How much sample did you use? How did you come up with this idea?
- Who am I to ask that question? Yeah, I have imposter syndrome, too. Think of your question as a positive contribution to the scientific community sitting in the room.
- I’m an introvert. Yeah, that’s me, too, along with having poor social skills. Pretty common among scientists. But curiosity is also pretty common among scientists. And curiosity drives the best science, particularly when it’s cross-disciplinary.
- I’m afraid I’ll make a fool of myself. I get around this by asking my question following a formula. Praise the speaker (Great talk. What a lot of work. I liked your talk.). Give an excuse (I have a naïve question. You might have said this already, but…). Ask the question. Sometimes the simplest questions are the wisest.
- Don’t push an agenda with your question. We’ve all seen this and we know what we think when someone brings up their own work or looks like they’re trying to bring attention to themselves. Keep it to genuine curiosity and you can’t go wrong. If someone thinks poorly of you for asking a genuine question, that’s their problem.
- If you can’t bring yourself to ask the question in front of the audience, go up to the speaker later and ask the question. Your interest will be appreciated.
- If you enjoy the research, ask the person to share a meal or have coffee with you. At the best, you’ll gain additional insight and get to know a fellow scientist better. At the worst, they will say no. You have nothing to lose and much to gain. That’s the kind of odds that I like.
Interesting and novel insights are what I live for as a scientist. Questions from a different perspective at seminars and conferences can produce these insights. This is why diversity pays. This is also why senior scientists try to force younger scientists to ask questions. In a way, this blog is me asking for your help. Please share your perspective with me and ask questions at conferences and seminars!