from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

How to Attend a Talk: Etiquette for Students, Wonks, and Speakers

December 5, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

 Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks to students during his public lecture at the Diplomatic Academy in Kiev on April 4, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin).
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton speaks to students during his public lecture at the Diplomatic Academy in Kiev on April 4, 2010 (Courtesy Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin).

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve attended thousands of speeches, conferences, workshops, academic job talks, roundtable meetings, panels, seminars, and lectures. Generally speaking, at the conclusion of prepared comments, the floor is opened up to audience members for a question and answer session. Ideally, the questions should challenge, contribute, or reframe the debate.

However, as many who have attended these events will know, the Q&A session often falls short of this ideal. Once an audience member has the group’s attention—or, at the very least, the microphone—he or she too rarely addresses the actual content of the remarks. As a frequent attendee and sometime speaker, I have discovered that there are a number of common mistakes made in a Q&A session, which can unfortunately detract from the event as a whole. In order to prevent well-intentioned attendees from making these same mistakes, I created a classification system to identify these saboteurs of academic or policy-related talks:

The “What About My Thing?” Person

Inevitably, someone in the audience has invested decades of their life studying a subject matter that might be marginally related, but is ultimately extraneous to the presentation. This person begins their comment with the phrase: “I was wondering if you had considered…?” But, of course, the speaker hadn’t, because the contribution has nothing to do with topic presented. Like debating the Bible with a preacher, the presenter must either sidetrack the discussion by arguing with this person off-topic, or even better just admit or feign ignorance and move on.

The Shoehorn

Similar to the previous type, this Jenny or Johnny One-Note interjects their pet peeve, no matter how entirely disconnected it is to the topic at hand. This can be expected from activists of every ideological stripe, staunch nationalists, or fundamentalists of any faith or methodological approach. In addition, the pet peeve is always one carefully crafted to ignore any mitigating information or history. Examples include the Serbian who mentions NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, but not Serbia’s role in oppressing Kosovar Albanians in the decades beforehand, or the American military officer who constantly warns of China’s ominous blue water naval capabilities, but omits any mention of the U.S. Navy’s eleven aircraft carrier fleets.

The Wonk Hipster

Like the guy with a porkpie hat and bizarre facial hair whose favorite band is one you’ve never heard of, this audience member has some historical or current information that nobody else knows about. The wonk hipster initiates the unveiling of his hidden gems with, “Well if you’d bothered to read,” or, “You mean you’ve never heard of…?” More often than not, the secret information will not even be in the public domain, such as a recently assembled dataset that hasn’t appeared in a peer-reviewed journal. Victory for the wonk hipster is the smug self-satisfaction that comes with demonstrating mastery of the obscure and remote.

The “You Don’t Know Me!” Foreigner or Ex-Pat

This person was either born or spent many years living in a country under discussion. They need to emphasize that “their” country is very complex, with a rich and complicated history, and one that is wholly impossible for outsiders to ever comprehend. At some point, this person will inquire, “Have you ever even been to [Country X]?” or, “When were you last in [Country X]?” This role is one that is reliably assumed by Chinese students or researchers residing in the United States or Europe. Moreover, an American who spent their junior undergraduate year in [Country X, or just in London] who has mastered the understanding of [insert foreign policy issue].

The Spoiler

In the literature of civil war political settlements, Stanford professor Stephen Stedman introduced the concept of “spoilers” as influential or powerful members of society who can direct or derail post-conflict negotiations between warring parties. At events, this audience member is often a respected professor or elder statesman, who has marshaled a team of graduate students and researchers to advance and defend their cause. In addition, the spoiler is often at odds with someone else in the audience, or with a wider academic or policy field, and uses their time to loudly berate some marginal aspect of the speaker’s presentation, blithely unaware of how jarring and inappropriate it is to the discussion. If the spoiler times his or her caustic remarks perfectly, it can cause the entire event to grind to a screeching halt.

The Conspiracy Theorist

This person openly ignores the central findings presented, and instead draws the audience’s attention to unseen structural forces that are supposedly responsible for some phenomenon that is relatively easy to explain and understand. Like Occam’s razor inverted, the complex logic chain behind their comments—for the conspiracy theorist never asks a question—requires an unbelievable level of secret cooperation between governments, businesses, the media, unions, and/or fraternal organizations. Other members in the audience, socialized to be tolerant of diverse viewpoints, allow the conspiracy theorist to ramble far too long. The speaker who tries to correct the conspiracy theorist exposes themselves as obviously part of the secret scheme.

In his useful handbook, Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science, MIT professor Stephen Van Evera offers sage advice under the heading of “professional ethics:”

“Mensches make the world go round, and this should be recognized in funding, hiring and promotion decisions. The success of an academic field depends in part on whether it has at least some fair-minded, public-spirited people among its leaders. Such individuals set a moral tone for the field, act as fair brokers to resolve disputes, [and] serve as good examples for younger scholars.”

This should be extended to audience members at academic or policy-related talks. The next time you are sitting in such an event, ask a relevant question, pass the microphone, and listen.