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There are Dumb Questions. Don’t Ask Them.

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We’ve all heard the phrase, “There are no dumb questions, only dumb answers.” That is patently false, as any one who has been the victim of a terrible question at a public event can attest. Participation is important, whether at an internal brown bag or plenary at an annual convention. Asking a question is a form of public speaking and a small opportunity to build your professional presence. How do you make sure you don’t squander it?

Don’t be long winded. Never-ending stories or professional histories detract from your actual question. Audiences don’t need to know your resume or how the taxi driver on the second day of your last business trip inspired this question.

Do identify yourself. If introductions have not been made, give your name, organization, and portfolio.  This concise sentence should present your professional chops and help others find you after the event.

Don’t be irrelevant. Questions that have nothing to do with the topic of the event, are specific to just one panelist, or refer to an esoteric part of your job only are better saved for a one on one moment after the panel, to make yourself memorable in a private conversation.

Do tie your question into the conversation. Revisiting earlier parts of the conversation is fine, but it’s also helpful to remind speakers of what points they made that you are specifically referencing.

Don’t be combative. Aggressive questions, especially about specific issues, waste the rest of the audience’s time and shut down panelists. Being boorish undermines your professional credibility, too.

Do take a stand. Remember, this is a professional opportunity, have an articulate opinion that demonstrates your expertise and strategic thinking.

Don’t be timid. When there are more caveats than substance, the question gets lost. If you have a point of clarification or a challenge to make, own it and state it tactfully.

Do ask the question! Be direct and get to it as quickly as possible.

What makes a question dumb is rarely the substance and frequently the delivery. Good questions apply the points from the discussion to broader scenarios, ask for clarification on inconsistencies or contradictions in the presentation, or explore previous points more deeply.

One final note: there’s plenty of commentary, and anecdotes, about how women don’t speak up enough in meetings or public fora. Women, ask questions! And moderators, invite women to ask them! If I notice that no woman has asked a question, I come up with something and ask it no matter how much I would prefer not. Ladies, don’t hold yourselves back.

Ngiste Abebe is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Amy DeWolf

These are great tips – especially for people (like myself) who don’t typically ask questions at events! At GovLoop, we host a lot of in person and online trainings and the best questions are the ones that are direct, relevant and the speakers are actually able to answer.

To your point about women asking questions — I think it’s in Lean In where they mention women are much more likely to put their hand down after a certain amount of questions/time, but men will leave their hand up until they are called on. We gotta keep out hand up!

Lauren Potter

Very interesting. I like the headline a lot, grabbed my attention (as was the intent) and your points are great. I like the concept of ‘professional presence.’ Thank you for your insight.

Profile Photo Steve Ressler

Mine – just ask 1 question.

I hate it when people go so I have 3 questions – x, y, z. It takes too much time, the presenter forgets the questions, and it shows you haven’t prioritized your questions.

(Yes, I’ve been this guy before…but I’m getting better)

Debbie Button

Very good information. I liked your comment “What makes a question dumb is rarely the substance and frequently the delivery.”

Profile Photo Matthew Garlipp

Great post! I couldn’t agree more — especially in terms of being long-winded. Way too often I’ve rolled my eyes at never-ending monologues that appear to have no end – or actual question – in sight. Also, it’s frustrating when someone rambles on for a long time, addressing multiple issues, and finally says, “so, I guess my question is…” Know your question! Think through it beforehand, even write it down if you want, and be as concise as possible. Other people have questions, too!