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Speaking Stacks

Brianna Laugher wrote a blog post about the speaking stack used in the free software activism BoF at LCA 2013 [1].

Occupy Wall St uses what they call a progressive speaking stack – this means that white men step back in the queue and people from marginalised groups step forward [2].

During the free software activism BoF the speaking queue that was used was that people who hadn’t already spoken had priority over those who had spoken before. This was a really good idea and could be used a lot more in LCA and other conferences. It is fairly common that a small number of delegates take up the vast majority of question time.

I suggest that all white men watch the questions and observe how many are asked by white men and how many are asked by everyone else. Also note the way that questions are asked, who shouts a question, who wins when two delegates ask at the same time, and who waits until the end of the talk.

The Reasons for a Speaking Stack

In Occupy Wall St there is a real benefit in giving priority to members of minority groups. The political needs of white men are generally reasonably well publicised due to disparities in media coverage. As the aim of the occupy movement is not to replace one group of white men with another there is an obvious need to get opinions from members of minority groups.

Bugs in software generally affect members of all groups equally (with the exception of bugs related to accessibility features). But even so I think it is important to encourage diversity among people who ask questions. When someone is in the audience sees that no-one who is in their minority group is asking questions they will get the impression that they are just watching someone else’s conference. We should aim to have a conference for everyone.

How to Implement it

When taking questions for one of my talks I generally try to give priority to people who find it difficult to be heard. But doing that requires some concentration and I often don’t have any to spare when giving a demanding technical talk. I think that this needs to be managed by the moderator/MC/microphone holder. Someone who doesn’t need to think much about the content of the talk can concentrate on choosing the best people to ask questions.

Also a significant issue is questions that are called out during a talk. Some speakers insist that questions are only asked at the end of their talk. But I prefer some degree of interaction with the audience so my talks often end up being more about having a conversation with the audience than reading from a script. The difficulty with an interactive talk is that it strongly favors those who are prepared to shout a question over those who wait their turn. I think I’ll try to make a strict policy of having people raise their hand to ask a question in future to address this issue, but I will need assistance from someone who’s not concentrating on the technical issues.

For a conference I think it would make sense for the people who hold the microphones to keep a mental list of who’s asked questions. If someone asks their share of questions on the first day of the conference then they would deserve a lower priority for questions on later days. This would also encourage delegates to consider whether their question is really worth asking during the lecture or whether they should save their question quota and talk to the speaker afterwards.

Also we could ask delegates to exercise restraint. One suggestion I heard was that people should set themselves a quota of 3 questions per conference or 1 per day. In a conference with ~600 delegates and ~33 sessions per day if everyone asked a question each day that would be about 18 questions per session – more than is typical. So it seems that anyone who asks a single question per day is still likely to be asking more than 1/600 of all questions.

Exceptions

There are occasions when multiple questions and comments make sense. One example is where a member of the audience has significant expertise in the topic in question. Another is when a speaker completes significantly before the end of their allotted time and some questions from the MC or an experienced member of the audience can help them spend all their time educating the audience.

But I think there needs to be a compelling reason that has a clear benefit for the audience.

General Benefits

How many of the repeat questions are useful to the audience? It seems to me that there is a correlation between multiple questions and questions that are more about the person asking than about clarifying issues that are likely to matter to the audience.

Would such limits improve the quality of the discussion even for people who don’t care about diversity?

Also I have asked a disproportionate number of questions in the past. I am reducing the number of questions that I ask although I think I asked more than 3 at this conference.

2 comments to Speaking Stacks

  • Great piece Russell. An alternative idea I had was to have a webpage where people could enter questions during the talk and other participants could rank the questions before they were asked.

    The MC can then just read out the questions, clearly to the speaker and for the recording. No running around with a microphone etc.

    It doesn’t directly address the minority voice issue but it could be more efficient and result on questions rising on merit, as determined by the audience not by the questioners ethnicity.

  • etbe

    Craige: I’ve considered various ways of automating the question process during talks. Methods I’ve considered but not blogged about include using IRC or other instant-messaging systems to allow delegates to send questions to the MC. A web site, twitter, etc could serve the same purpose.

    Such things would improve the quality of questions which would be a really good thing. But I expect that they wouldn’t help with diversity as people from minority groups would probably still hesitate to ask when anonymous. But I agree that solving one part of the problem would still be a significant improvement over the current situation.