The Art of Dialogue in Public Space

019You know when something bugs you enough, you just have to give voice to it. This is one of those moments. I guess I make some pretty big judgments about public speakers based on their ability to answers questions in public forum. Often based on standards I am not sure I could meet, but so it goes. Today, I will play the critic.

Creative Commons License photo credit: MilitaryHealth


Last fall I had a chance to see Tufte speak at his art gallery. I arrived a tad late and snuck into a chair off to the side. He took questions at the end. As he answered each question, my jaw lowered closer to the floor. I slouched down in my seat, feeling defeated. My hero! He was failing me! Later I was able to come back to an appreciation of his work, even if I don’t appreciate his ability to respond to questions. But let’s look for a minute at what triggered me to sit there aghast.

1. Asked a question about infographics for social media, Tufte basically responded that professional journalists do a good job of creating ways to understand this data. This answer completely fails to understand the nature of the medium… the publsihing by anyone should also be data-fied by anyone and not left to the old world of media.

2. Asked a question about infographics for biologists by a biologist, Tufte said that Scientific American and another magazine have great infographics by biologists. For all he knew the questioner was one of those published in said journal looking for more help! He didn’t do anything to narrow down the question to respond to the specific needs of the person asking, and thus made a vacuous circuitous answer that provided nothing of value. And it took him seven minutes of pontificating to do it.

Part of this issue is that many of us are not good at asking questions. It isn’t just Tufte being dull.



A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing the totally fascinating Alain de Botton speak on his latest book, Religion for Atheists. First, let’s be clear that Alain demonstrates fabulous speaking talent. His stories are delightful, the logic of them disruptive and curious, and the pattern he uses is both refreshing and at the same time clear enough that you know that you too can repeat what he is doing with other cases you think of. The success of his talk comes from the alignment of layers of skill. He asks interesting questions that makes you see something familiar in an unexpected way. He selects stories that take you on a journey of experiencing to see for yourself. He has an emotionally engaging and comfortable presentation style that works for his presence of being. All those things we love in a compelling speaker, and more than that he can answer questions. Or things that are offered as questions but aren’t indeed questions.

People who said things during the question period at the end of the talk did one of several things that drive me totally nuts with that kind of slow-down-for-the-accident fascination…

Let’s make a list of all the fascinating car-wreck ways to “ask” questions:

  1. Minutiae. Pedantic. Make a statement adding something minor and unimportant to the topic for broad audience. Shows a profound disregard for other people’s time as well as lack of being able to discern relevance and importance. Usually publicly perceived as someone over-ambitious to be acknowledged as adding value.
  2. Evangelist. Affirm the topic of the talk and add a personal quip to it. Again, shows a lack of regard for time constraints and relevance. Usually publicly perceived as a narcissist or pawning for affection.
  3. Contrarian. Finds any random point to disagree with. I say random because the effort seems so clearly to be an attempt to spark verbal brawls and so little to do with finding deeper understanding. Whether they admit it or not, the goal seems to be to diminish the speaker. Usually publicly perceived as a bright individual with a vengeful need to upset others through their talents.
  4. Wanderer. Means well, but can’t focus their thoughts well enough to offer any clarity in their inquiry. You wonder, did they ask a question? What was it? How many parts did it have? How are those things related? Reveals disorganized thinking. Associative thinking is great for brainstorming, it isn’t appropriate in public questions responding to a prepared talk. Usually publicly perceived as a naive fool, harmless beyond the time consumed by their traveling story/statement/question.

What other characters have you seen show up?

And I can certainly think of times I have played most of these roles. It is hard to meet someone you revere and think clear enough to ask a decent question.

Alain did a brilliant job of dealing with each of these characters as they showed up to “ask” a question. For bonus points he would even answer a two part question to completion, even if answering the first part led him through a story. He was gracious and good natured. A model of elegance. If I achieve such a level of skill when I am twice his age, I will be quite happy.


How to Ask a QuestionThis person can dig it
Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya

When I read How to Ask a Question in the Chronicle, I thought it would be useful to summarize for you here:

  1. Pick one thing you want to know – that you think others might want to know to.
  2. Check to see if you are coming from curiosity. If not, be quite until you are.
  3. Whether you agree or disagree with the points stated, does your offering to the dialogue add value and display respect?
  4. Does it feel like improv? a) does the content feel fresh or new? b) do you “yes, and” to allow the speaker ground to stand on even if you qualify a statement or clarify a concept? c) does it feel like we are here together, sharing the stage for a larger audience?
  5. As the article linked above suggests, avoid the meta-speech. I wonder if this point involves meta-speech already? Say the point, not the internal dialogue you have.
  6. If you are going to disagree or start a debate, begin by voicing respect for the speaker. Say what you like abou their perceptiveness or viewpoint, then ask about the point where your view diverges from theirs.
  7. Watch the “I am a” statements. Identity politics is obscures how different we each are. You are you, speak from that and for only yourself unless you officially represent a group.

We are here to learn from and with each other. Let’s foster a question/answer culture that promotes it.


ps. most of these “ask a question” points also apply to conversations and apply broadly. 😉

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