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There's a speaker coming to my university to give a lecture that all students and faculty are invited to. My department is especially interested in the speaker because he will be talking about a field that is closely-related to us. Students in my department were invited to join the speaker for lunch (which is before his talk). Given that we're all socially-awkward academics and that we haven't heard his talk yet (but we do have the abstract and his background), what are some appropriate lunch conversations? Do we discuss what he'll be talking about later that day or avoid the topic? While I am interested in his work, I don't know enough about it to start an intelligent conversation about something related to his topic.

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    The famous invited speaker is quite likely You in 20 years - an aged socially awkward nerd, who with aging has gotten better at social situations. Don't focus narrowly on academia; treat him like someone at a nerd party: ask about him and his family, stuff he likes to do (probably in one of his CVs), this and his city, ....and additionally academic questions as in the answer below. If you feel resistance to a more informal approach, stick to only the below; but this is very unlikely. – gnometorule Nov 6 '14 at 20:04
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There's always plenty of questions to ask. If you knew as much, or more than your speaker, you wouldn't need to ask it!

Questions that do not require a lot of experience in the field to be able to ask or understand and provide a higher volume of response. In addition, a lunch setting is less formal than a lecture, so you can use more open-ended questions not necessarily related to his talking point.

Here are some example questions that would apply to most fields.

  • What do you think is the most promising research in [the field] you've seen recently?
  • How did you come up with the idea behind [topic]?
  • Can you explain the [concept] as it was related to [the paper]?
  • I am a member of the [department] which is similar to your field. What have you seen in interdisciplinary topics that you find interesting?

With a specific field, you can also ask the speaker his opinion on [new concept XYZ] that you've learned about or read about.

Questions I've seen that are more "awkward" typically involve accidentally eliciting a direct yes/no answer along the way. Avoid "Do you think..." in favor of "Why do you think..."

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