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Is it commonplace to give a presentation at a conference and not have anyone ask a single question afterwards? What should one make of such silent feedback?

  • 2
    How many presentations have you done already? – Dmitry Savostyanov Nov 20 '15 at 14:57
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    Did your presentation go right up to (or even over) the allotted time? Often, when I chair a session, and no one asks a question, I ask one. But only if there is time left. – GEdgar Nov 20 '15 at 15:36
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    As a former colleague of mine once said when asked about the reception of a conference presentation: "Glorious! They didn't understand a single word of what I said!". :^) Don't worry about the lack of feedback. It happens all the time – user3697176 Nov 20 '15 at 17:09
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    Conferences in different fields vary dramatically in their norms and practices. Without knowing what field you're in, it's impossible to say what is or is not unusual. But, presumably, you went to other people's talks at the conference: did they get asked questions? – David Richerby Nov 20 '15 at 20:11
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    Do you want questions? Make them ask. Pause and ask, "was that clear?" or "do you see why x is impossible without y?", "is anyone familiar with the work of X? Oh great, well our paper can be seen as a special case of it..." These are examples. Make eye contact and move around the room if you can. – PatrickT Nov 21 '15 at 11:59
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This is extremely common. Usually the session chair will at least ask a question to be polite. But...

I am certainly disappointed when I don't get any questions after a talk. Indeed, my primary gauge of the success of a talk (by myself or someone else) is whether it provokes interesting questions. Whenever I have listened to a really great talk, I've always had many questions afterward.

In my experience as a member of the audience, the most common reason that a speaker gets no questions is that the talk is too narrowly focused and does not contain enough motivation or context. That is, the audience cannot digest the talk in relation to other things they know, so they cannot form meaningful questions.

Thus the lack of questions is often a sign that you should spend more time on introductory material and present the meat of the talk at a higher level. Often it is more effective to draw analogies and pictures or diagrams rather than to get lost in technical assumptions and extensive notation. Your talk is an opportunity to advertise your research and provoke interest; it is certainly not reasonable to expect the audience to digest the details of your methods or results in 15 minutes or even an hour. Yet most scientific talks still try to do the latter. I believe this is why so many conference sessions are almost devoid of questions.

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    +1 This is absolutely my experience: no questions usually means a talk that the audience did not care about. If they liked the material, they'll ask "future work" questions. If they disagree with points, they'll ask challenging questions. If they think you're boring, incomprehensible, or hopeless, they'll ask nothing. – jakebeal Nov 21 '15 at 3:41
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    @jakebeal That is not really what David said. Or at least what David said was a lot more constructive. It's not just whether the audience cares about the material, it is whether the talk was so technical or detailed that they couldn't form questions. – mb7744 Nov 22 '15 at 19:27
  • I agree with this point. I am genuinely curious and interested by very diverse fields, even if very remote from mine. I often happened to be the only auditor asking questions during a whole track. When discussing with my collegues that also attended the same tracks about why they didn't ask any question, they usually say that it wasn't particularly interesting for them. On the other hand, in some fields like neuroscience, you often get lots of questions from layman people that didn't understand anything. So the motivation is primordial and not related to the actual value of your presentation. – gaborous Jun 3 '16 at 11:29
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Except for tier 1 and 2 conferences, its usual.

This can be due to one or more of the following reasons

  • The other participants know little or not related to your research topic
  • The other participants are more focussed on their own presentation
  • The session chair have limited or no knowledge of your presentation
  • The audience could not comprehend your presentation
  • This is also common at nearly all conferences when they are trying to wrap up the session if you are one of the last participants to present if earlier participants delay their presentation.

I doubt this is much to be bothered about. The main aspect is that your publication is to be visible to those who are interested online.

  • 1
    Yeah, that's why I don't go to that sort of conference. – jakebeal Nov 20 '15 at 17:10
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    I'm sorry if I'm missing something obvious, but what's a tier x conference? E.g. I'll be going to 32C3 in December, what tier conference would that be? – Luc Nov 20 '15 at 19:19
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    Roughly Tier 1 means a top conference, Tier 2 is not top, but a fine place that nobody should be embarrassed to publish in, and Tier 3 is all the rest. – jakebeal Nov 21 '15 at 0:51
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    Or they were sleeping. – Count Iblis Nov 21 '15 at 5:01
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There are multiple reasons why you get no questions:

  1. No time for questions (may or may not be your fault)
  2. You are too intimidating to get asked a question publicly
  3. Your talk was hard to follow but nobody wants to look stupid
  4. Your talk was so simplistic that nobody cared to engage
  5. You never made your subject interesting enough for your audience
  6. Audience energy level low (time of day: too early/too late, dark room, too warm, too much food, not enough food...) - thanks J.R. for the suggestion!

I have seen instances of all of these leading to "no questions". But I STRONGLY believe the power of conferences is in the interaction: it is not just a one way passing of (perhaps incomplete) information from speaker to audience (although giving visibility to your work is part of the reason to present at conferences); but when a presentation (oral or poster) is interesting and engaging, it should bring out questions and comments from the audience. It should be your goal to get questions.

So while it is unfortunately common for there to be no questions, I would say in 90% of the cases that is because the talk/speaker missed the opportunity to engage with their audience and tap into the "hive mind". Only you know whether in this case it was "not your fault" - but more often it is. If so, then you missed an opportunity. People showed up for your talk, and you were given a precious gift of their time and attention. And you didn't take advantage of it.

Here is something to ponder: if you were a business and you wanted to hire 100 consultants for 15 minutes to listen to your latest ideas and critique them - what would it cost you? And how would you make the most of that opportunity?

  • 1
    This is not an exhaustive list, of course; there are other possibilities as well. One that crossed my mind (something neither mentioned in the question nor addressed the comments yet) is the time slot drawn by the speaker. When speaking in a session near the end of the last day, it's not uncommon to have a relatively quiet audience – people are simply burned out from sitting, snacking, and sitting some more for two or three days straight. Your "squandered" assessment is a possibility, but I'm not sure enough information has been given to unequivocally conclude that's what really happened. – J.R. Nov 21 '15 at 12:14
  • @J.R. Good points - I have updated my answer. – Floris Nov 21 '15 at 21:05
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It may also be that the audience hasn't had enough time to internalize your material in a way that leads them to even have questions. So one piece of feedback that you may take is that you have pitched your talk at too high a level and assumed too much knowledge about the subject in your audience. If that's the case, you may try bringing the level of your talk down a small notch to accommodate.

Also, depending on the niche that your material covers, people who are interested and well-versed in your area may have to go home, find a copy of your paper, and study it heavily before they can even formulate a question. I always work, when I'm session chair, to develop at least one or two questions to seed the Q&A part of each talk and try prompt some discussion. Even if my questions are kind of lame, they may spark some ideas in others (as well may your answer!).

5

To give a somewhat contrasting opinion to the answers and comments stating that this no questions are a common occurrence:

In the fields whose conferences I have been attending (all of which do not use conferences for publishing), if nobody asks a question, it is generally expected of the chair to ask one. Thus, zero feedback happens only rarely and usually is due to a very bad talk. The same goes if the chair only manages to ask a “lazy” question. As already mentioned in the comments, you can estimate what attitude your field or a particular conference by observing how many other talks get zero feedback.

Possible other reasons for this are:

  • Your talk is off-topic at the conference or the particular session (in case of bigger conferences). In the first case, it’s most likely you who is to blame; in the second case, it’s either you or the organisers.
  • The session or your talk are particularly badly visited. In this case, having a more attractive title and abstract may have helped.
  • There was a lack of time. However, usually even in those cases there is a call for “one quick question”. If your talk began as scheduled, it’s again your fault.

So, to sum this up: If you are at a conference where almost every talk receives feedback, you should really be concerned about zero feedback.

  • Agree. And if of most talks get zero feedback you should consider whether you want to continue attending this conference. – Floris Nov 27 '15 at 18:50
2
  1. Is it commonplace?

    It's not commonplace but definitely too frequent, and not something you want happen to you.

  2. What to make of it?

    If you want questions and feedback during or after your talk, make them ask.

    There are several ways to do this, here is one approach: pause periodically, make eye contact, smile and ask if everything's okay, not as a rhetorical trick but in a genuinely concerned fashion: "was I clear about why we made assumption A?", "do you see why Q follows from P?" if you get a sorry look, you may want to slow down and clarify the points in question, but if you get a bored look and a confident hand wave, you may want to speed it up!

    If you know someone in the audience, make eye contact with them. If there was an earlier talk on a vaguely related topic, name-drop "as we learned in Paul's stimulating talk this morning..." while looking into Paul's eyes with an over-the-top smile. If Paul enjoyed that, he may ask you questions during the talk, if only to remind everyone that he's that Paul.

    Don't mumble. If English is your second language (or third or fifth), it is imperative that you speak slowly and loud and that you repeat yourself. Even if you've lived in the States for 20 years --- we probably don't understand half of what you're saying!

    If you're a native speaker of English addressing an audience of non-native speakers, same thing: slow down, repeat. When you repeat, change the words ("x implies y", "y is implied by x", "if you see x, you'll see y" something like that)

    One thing you can do if you're unsure of the type of audience you'll be facing, is to prepare a non-linear talk. In a non-linear talk, you have more slides than you plan to discuss, you have a method to access the desired slides when needed (e.g. dynamic links in a PDF or HTML presentation), and you ask your audience for their preference:

    Early on in the talk, go something like "is everyone familiar with the works of x and y and their proof of the impossibility of z? Would you like me to go over the key points? No, great, let's jump right into the heart of the matter then..."

    After you've summarized the best of your contributions, you can offer them another choice: "I know some of you are experts in the field of x, so you may be interested in seeing the details of our proof of y, or perhaps you've seen too many of these proofs (smile, pause, eye contact, controlled laugh to encourage them to laugh at the "joke") and you'd like to see our empirical results?".

    To make sure you get answers to these questions, ask the more senior people (the junior people may not dare to take on the responsibility of nudging you one way or another). With a non-linear talk you should be able to adapt more easily to the audience and serve them the dish they want, so to speak.

    One way to look at it is as a symptom of mismatch between speaker and audience. And one approach to this problem is to try to identify the cause of the mismatch. If you ask the right questions to your audience, you may discover the causes of the mismatch early on and, hopefully, address them. You have many great answers that discuss some of these possible causes. Hopefully you can now sense how to move forward.

2

I suspect that the answer to the question depends on the discipline. My impression of the role of questions at mathematics conferences is somewhat at odds with most of the other answers and comments so far.

Questions at the end of a talk are a crude barometer of the level of audience interest in a talk. A lack of questions does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest.

After all, the (vast?) majority of the audience will not ask a question at the end of a given talk; this does not mean that the majority of the audience is not interested. Some of the possible reasons for not asking questions have been outlined in other answers. However, I disagree that a lack of questions is inherently undesirable, and in need of an explanation. Consequently, it seems a little strange to me that on the one hand one would try to manufacture questions for the sake of feigning interest, or on the other hand that one would try to coax questions out of the audience, as if they were too shy to ask.

My own response to an interesting talk is to want to read a preprint on the subject. Perhaps there is something that can be helpfully asked at the time, but as Bill Barth says, the audience may need more time to reflect on the material before a worthwhile question can be asked. When I ask a question arising from a talk it is often much later, possibly the next day. I've similarly been asked questions at conferences some time after my talk.

Moreover, often the questions that get asked on the spot, even the talk is by an eminent speaker, are points of clarification ('should that k be an m?', 'is this n the same as the n you mentioned five minutes ago?', 'are you (still) assuming G is locally compact?') While giving some assurance that the asker is awake, such questions don't necessarily show that the audience is grasping the subtleties that the speaker is hoping to convey. And if anything, the speaker should aim to make the exposition clear enough to minimise the need for questions of this sort.

However, if you find that you get significantly less feedback than other speakers do then it is worth exploring why, and the other answers give possible reasons.

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