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No questions?

When doing an interview or making a presentation, I used to worry about not knowing enough about whatever I was supposed to be talking about. (I had an hour on an important London radio program when my first environmental book was published, and will never forget the host’s flipping through the book and throwing me a question about an obscure topic during the final minutes of the show.) But now I’m beginning to think that one is really in trouble when there aren’t enough questions!

I have been at panels of late where the moderator was hard-pressed to get the audience to ask anything at all. The first time this happened was at the Global Information Industry Summit in Amsterdam. I was on the first panel, about China, and we had plenty of audience comments and questions–mostly because they disagreed with some of the panelists, who were, they thought, being too negative about China. But there were a number of other panels that seemed not to generate any questions at all. This had to do with the moderator, in part. Some moderators (George Beckerman, for example, stands out in my mind) really managed the session, and perhaps even had a question or two already planted (I’m just guessing here!). Others were less focused, and ended without the speakers making clear points for the audience to respond to.

This is marginally better than the kind of event where people line up at the mike to make speeches, but it’s a waste when there isn’t some good discussion at the end of an expert panel session. The second time this happened, though, was the time that really made me wonder what exactly keeps an audience from speaking up. It was at London Online last month, when I went to a panel about social media, with a couple of leading figures in this area. The moderator was “KM guru” (that’s Knowledge Management) David Gurteen and the lead speaker was Dave Pollard (who has now contributed to my guest-edit issue of Against the Grain, I’m happy to say). These guys are big names in the world that London Online draws from, the topic was interesting, and they did a nice job.

It’s quite embarrassing to sit there and watch this kind of thing go on. Why don’t I jump in?, you ask. Unfortunately, I’m far too intense a questioner when it’s a subject I care about. I tend to get into debates or send the discussion down a side track. (I’m a little chagrined, for example, to think about how I tackled the speakers at a panel in Oxford recently, because they were being too superficial and optimistic about China’s environmentalism. I later realized that they must have been doing what they felt was appropriate to the new age, green audience, and would probably have presented the situation more rationally at another venue.) I’ve resolved to get better at this, to think of questions that will be of general utility.

But I’ve also been asking myself, and others, what it might mean when there are no questions. Here are the possibilities we have come up with:

* Talks weren’t what I expected
* Speakers were off topic
* Speakers were boring–I don’t want to hear their voices any more
* I don’t know enough to ask questions
* It was too much information at once
* I’m tired, it’s the end of the day or the last day of the conference

I guess I ought to ask David Gurteen and David Pollard if they have any insight into what the speaker-audience dynamic was that day. Perhaps people were more comfortable asking them questions afterwards. (Though I met Pollard then, and heard a few people talking to him. No exciting exchanges as far as I could tell, even though the subject of his talk lends itself to some really important discussion.)

I’m finding that social media, which generates enormous amounts of discussion in its own world and among the technorati, makes a lot of people clam up. They don’t understand it, don’t use it much, and feel at a terrible disadvantage as a result. They’re often skeptical about it, but feel that if they say so they’ll be called fogies. But surely that wouldn’t explain the response at a meeting like Online.

Time Magazine has made the Person of the Year “You.” Navel gazing narcissism, the slippery slope to social breakdown, or a brave new future? None of the above, if you ask me, though not exactly brilliant journalism. The only way to get some balance in all this is for more of us—professionals in traditional industries—to try out the world of social media so we can weigh things for ourselves, instead of relying on either the evangelists, or the naysayers. That’s what I called the two camps in an article Richard Charkin persuaded me to let him post on his blog. So far, though I know some leading lights in the social media world have read it, no one has posted a comment that’s really in response to my argument. Questions, please!

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