Thoughts on asking better panel questions

At panel discussions, there is usually a chance for members of the audience to ask questions. If you want to get good answers to your question, it helps to ask the question a certain way. These are not absolute rules, but these general principles often help:

Ask one question:

  • If the panelists are interesting, you will probably have a pile of questions you want to ask them
  • It can be tempting to try to ask all the questions together in one long paragraph
  • That never works, because the panelists don’t actually have time to answer all ten of your complicated questions
  • And if your question gets overly long and complicated, they quit paying attention and just talk about what they want to talk about
  • If you want them to answer a question, you have to pick one.

Make sure your question is actually a question:

  • The point of asking questions is to get the panelists to share their perspective on something you care about
  • The question you ask should be possible to answer, and you should be interested in what the panelists think of it
  • Otherwise it’s not really a question
  • Sometimes people who think they’re asking a question are actually presenting a long monologue about their views on something
  • That really annoys everyone.
  • The people in the audience came to hear the panelists, not you. If you monologue instead of asking a question, it will annoy them.
  • (There’s almost always at least one person who does this.)
  • (There are some exceptions to this: if you’re sufficiently popular in that group that people are likely to be just as interested in what you say, *and* the panelists hold you in high regard and won’t mind, sometimes it’s ok. That’s rare.)

Questions to panelists should be specific, and easy for the panelists to understand. They should also be at least somewhat open-ended, so that the panelists will be able to give substantive and nuances answers. A few possible scripts for forming good questions (there are many others):

Asking how something works, or how something will happen, eg:

  • “How will the new version of your app support VoiceOver?“
  • “How do you decide what to put in the parameters for casting calls?”
  • “How do you respond when the alarm goes off in the spaceship?“

This can also be a short statement, then a question, eg:

  • “A lot of comedians tell offensive jokes. When you’re working on a routine, how do you figure when a joke you’re considering is crossing a line?”

Asking them to expand on something interesting they referenced by starting with “Can you say more about…”, eg:

  • “Can you say more about the time you quit a job at the Very Highly Regarded Charity for ethical reasons?“
  • “Can you say more about your methods for attracting butterflies without also attracting wasps?”

“What do you think about..?” or “Here’s a statement. What do you think about that?“

  • This can be good, but it can also be hard to make it specific.
  • Example of an overly vague question: “What do you think about pie?”
  • A better question: “What do you think of replacing cakes with pie on ceremonial occasions?“
  • Another example of a question that would be overly vague in most contexts: “What do you think about progress?”
  • A question that’s more likely to be answerable: “What do you think about the role of People in Our Field in making the world better?”
  • another example: “Some people say that if we wait long enough, things will get better on their own. What do you think about that?“
  • “What do you think about Other Person’s Theory? Does that seem true in your work?”

“Do you think that…"

  • This can be a good way to ask stuff
  • The problem is that it’s prone to cause a question to be overly closed
  • Eg: “Do you think that you will enjoy your next job?” is very unlikely to get a good answer
  • This might get a good answer: “Do you think that other women are still facing obstacles in your field?“
  • Offering alternatives can sometimes make the question seem more open, eg:
  • “Do you think that standardized testing is a good approach to improving special education outcomes, or do you favor a different approach?”

Asking about a rumor:

  • Make it clear which rumor you’re talking about, then ask about it (Asking “So, are the rumors true?” will not generally get an interesting answer).
  • “Is there any truth to that?” will often get a better answer than “Is that true?”
  • Example: “I heard that you’re working on a book of poetry about cats from a laser pointer’s perspective. Is there any truth to that?“

Questions that start simple and also ask for an explanation. There’s sometimes another way to phrase these too:

  • Adding “why or why not?”
  • eg: “Did you enjoy being a voice actor on the Simpsons? Why or why not?“
  • you could also ask that question this way: “What were some things you liked and disliked about being a voice actor on The Simpsons?”
  • another example: “Do you think that there is life on other planets? Why or why not?“

There are also questions that are challenges. These are harder to pull off. They still should be real questions, that it is actually possible to answer in a substantive way.

  • For instance “Isn’t it true that you’re an ableist and only care about yourself?” isn’t a good question because there’s no good way to answer it.
  • Asking that way makes you look like a jerk, even if you’re completely right in your assessment
  • It’s much more effective to challenge them on something specific, and to ask a question that it is possible to answer
  • (This can sometimes force them to consider the issue, or to reveal publicly that they’re getting it wrong.)
  • Example of a better question: “Why doesn’t the board of your Disability Organization About Disability have any openly disabled members?”
  • Or, you can push harder and say something like: “There are no openly disabled members on your board. What are you doing to address this problem?“
  • How far it’s useful to push depends a lot on context.
  • (The rule of only asking one clear question at a time is particularly important with challenges. If you ask a complicated or ambiguous challenge question, it makes it easy for them to evade it.)

If possible, keep your question short:

  • Most people don’t like to pay attention to long complicated questions
  • If your question is short and easy to understand quickly, you’re likely to get a better answer
  • Short questions are easier to understand
  • They’re also harder to evade
  • If your question is 1-3 sentences long, you will probably get a better answer than if it is substantially longer.

Think about your question before you start talking:

  • You will probably have to wait your turn to ask
  • While you’re waiting to be called on, it’s worth planning what you want to say and how you want to say it
  • If you wait and don’t figure out what you’re going to say until you start talking, it will probably be more verbose and less clear
  • If you can, it’s worth planning
  • (For some people, writing the question down first helps) 

None of these things are absolute rules, but all of them are potentially helpful. If you can’t communicate this way, you still have the right to ask questions. These are suggestions, not rules.

tl;dr If you’re at a panel discussion and want the panelists to give interesting answers to your question, there are things that make that more likely. Scroll up for some general principles and some scripts.