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Length of Conference Questions

After LCA last year I wrote about “speaking stacks” and conference questions [1]. In that post I did some rough calculations on the amount of conference time taken by questions and determined that anyone who asks one question per day at a conference such as LCA (with about 600 delegates) is going to be asking more than 1/600 of all questions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone shouldn’t ask more than one question in a day, but they should carefully consider whether their questions are adding value to other delegates.

Another issue that I’ve noticed is the length of questions which seems to be a separate problem and it seems that we should consider keynote speeches separately as they involve all delegates. The regular conference lectures involve 4 to 6 streams running in parallel which means that in aggregate more questions can be asked.

LCA has one keynote for each day including the mini-conf days, so that’s 5 keynote speeches in total. If each keynote has 20 minutes of question time (and most keynote speeches probably have less) then there’s 100 minutes of question time for the entire conference. For a genuine question (IE not a statement) that is non-trivial (anything that has a yes/no answer probably isn’t interesting to the whole audience) the answer is probably going to be about three times as long as the question. Given some overheads for applause etc that means that the amount of time spent asking questions would be something less than 20 minutes at keynote speeches over the entire conference.

If every delegate asked one keynote-speech question in the entire conference then that 20 minutes of questions would allow each delegate to spend 2 seconds asking a question. If 10% of delegates each asked one question and no-one asked a second question then each question could take an average of 20 seconds. Given the acoustic issues of asking a question from the back of the hall it seems unlikely to get a speaking rate of much more than a word a second, so 20 seconds of speaking would be in the range of 25 words (one tweet) to 50 words (if you speak at the typical speed of audio books according to Wikipedia). I think that audio-book speed isn’t going to work well so a question asked at a keynote speech should probably be of a length that would fit on twitter.

So if a question wouldn’t fit on twitter then maybe a blog post or a discussion after the lecture would be a more suitable option.

Before Asking a Question

I think that before asking a question at a keynote speech people should consider whether that question would fit on twitter. They should also consider whether it is strictly a question and whether it will be of interest to other delegates.

If your question is significantly longer than something that would fit on twitter then the next thing to consider is whether you are more important than other delegates. Because when someone asks more or longer questions than other people it will be interpreted as an implicit “I am more important than you” statement by many other delegates.

Some Disclaimers

Firstly I’m not making any suggestions here for people who run conferences. I’m making suggestions for delegates who are considering how they should act.

The next disclaimer is that the educational benefit of the conference has the priority. If you have a question that really helps other delegates learn something which takes a little longer to ask then that’s OK.

Finally I apply the same criteria to my own decisions. There were several questions I considered asking at the keynote this morning, but I decided that none of them met the criteria of being short enough and generally interesting enough. There is one issue I will discuss with the speaker privately and I’ll probably write at least one blog post related to the lecture.

3 comments to Length of Conference Questions

  • -dsr-

    It seems to me that any topic interesting enough to be a speech at a conference should be interesting enough to have a mailing list/forum/discussion group already devoted to it. Questions could reasonably be posed there, which would allow for more thought in both the posing and the replies.

    There might be interest in a conference-wide discussion system, as well, with predefined groups for each track or group so as to encourage participation with less commitment.

  • Phil

    For a sufficiently large event, why not use http://www.google.com/moderator or a FOSS equivalent?

  • etbe

    Phil: I don’t know if something as heavy as that could be used in the small amount of time available. Things like voting for questions would take too long when there’s only 15-20 minutes for questions. In the past I’ve considered IRC for asking questions but most people don’t seem to like that idea.

    dsr: You are correct that a forum or mailing list could be used. One option would be to discuss things on the main conference list or a separate list setup for that purpose. A forum would take significant extra work from the sysadmin team so probably wouldn’t be accepted so well.

    Anyway as we have to deal with the situation of having questions called out by audience members the thing to do is for the people who have questions to exercise some restraint.

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