Conference/Convention Panels: How to not be an Annoying Audience Member

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I’ve attended many conferences and society meetings and luncheons with speakers and seven (eight?) Dragon*Cons to date. I’ve sat in the audience for panels from such diverse topics as Wastewater Management to The Physics of the Buffyverse. These panels invariably have one thing in common, no matter the difference in the subject matter: Annoying Audience Members (AAM)1.

Before I get into what makes an AAM, I must stipulate a few things:

  • The panel is interesting and does not require derailing for the continued mental health of the audience
  • The panel is an informational panel which features a question and answer session
  • The panel isn’t specifically designed to violate the things I’m about to talk about

Making those assumptions, I have the following rules for Audience Members in order to avoid becoming an AAM:

  • Do not loudly agree/disagree with the relevant panelist to your neighbor while others are listening. This is common courtesy and should be observed by all persons. It’s especially important when the panel is set in a large room and the panelists are not properly mic’d. Be kind. Shut up
  • During the Question and Answer session please ask a relevant question. The definition of relevant can be divined from the published topic of the panel and from the actual topics being discussed by the panelists. As I just came out of Dragon*Con, I’ll pull examples from some experiences there: If you’re at a panel entitled “Brandon Sanderson talks about Everything” you can ask, well, anything. If the panel instead is “Brandon Sanderson discusses the Wheel of Time” then some of your fellow audience members will become peeved if you insist on asking about his writing process.
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  • If you’re at an Author Panel, please avoid asking them about their writing process or where they get their inspiration. I’ve polled a lot of people and there’s a 2/3 majority saying this is a stupid question. The only reason to ask it is because you might need some inspiration and there is a 99.9% likelihood that you can’t apply their methods to your art.
  • Never ever ever use the following words: “This is more a comment than a question….” Seriously, half the audience will want to pull out your innards and choke you with them. We’re (excuse me, “they’re”) not there to listen to you.
  • Ask good questions. This one is harder to define because what I define as a good question you might disagree with. However, we can talk about it from a structural perspective. A good question is short, to the point, and easily understood by the panelist. A great question is the same but elicits new information that the rest of the audience might not have heard before. As a personal note (and if you’ve ever attended any sort of panel with me, Dragon*Con or otherwise, you already know this) I like to ask questions but I only ask questions I think are good ones. I also listen to make sure the topic I want to question hasn’t been covered. There are fine shades here but you can get mileage out of old, tired things by applying a bit of thought. Going back to the Brandon Sanderson2 Wheel of Time panel3 the moderator got the usual question (“Who killed Asmodean”) out of the way before the panel even started but I found a twist. “Do you agree with Robert Jordan that we have enough information to know who killed Asmodean?”4 I think that’s a good question. Spend at least a bit of time rehearsing the question in your head and it will come out cogent and relevant.
  • When asking a multipart question, don’t. Single questions, thanks.
  • Going back to the “This is more of a comment…” item, it’s ok to give background to frame the question you’re asking, but refer to the “Ask Good Questions” for some improvement tips.
  • If there is a microphone, use it. If there’s not, project to the room. When using the microphone, stick that thing in your face. The closer it is to your lips, the better. We want to hear you; you might be asking a Good Question.5 Also, it’s not considered rude or inappropriate to spend five seconds adjusting the microphone and stand. This makes it much more comfortable for you.
  • When at professional events, it’s considered courteous to not question the panelist’s competence out loud. Seriously, I’ve heard this happen at engineering conferences. Bad form. Wait ’til afterward. There’s really only two things that can happen if you do this. 1) You’re right, but if it’s obvious that you’re right, there’s no reason to call it to attention. Other people will notice too. 2) You’re wrong and you just made an enormous ass of yourself in front of people who might be in a position to influence your career.

Generally all these tips can be boiled down to: Be courteous, be relevant, and be there for the panel, not for you. If you choose to not follow these pointers, I assure you I remember the people I feel are wasting my time and the panelists’. Others do too.


1: About half of them will have the Annoying Panel Member, but that’s another topic
2: Brandon Sanderson is the author of Elantris, the Mistborn Trilogy, Warbreaker, The Way of Kings, and is now best known for being the author selected to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series.
3: Which was awesome. He read from the Prologue to the next book, The Towers of Midnight and we got to watch this!
4: If you want to know the history go here. His answer? Long and complicated but I interpreted it as “No.”
5: This has a corollary for panelists: repeat the question. When I’m in front of an audience with a microphone, I always repeat the question. This serves two purposes: everyone can hear it and the questioner knows if you’re interpreting the question correctly.

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3 Responses to Conference/Convention Panels: How to not be an Annoying Audience Member

  1. Rachel says:

    Why does everyone start their question with, “This question is for …” Can’t you just say their name and ask your question? And don’t get me started on, “I have two questions.” One to a customer, bub.

  2. Sharon says:

    Does this mean that it *is* rude, as a biologist, to mumble “Bullshit!” at a non-scientist panelist who is claiming that tubulins + quantum physics = The Secret Of Life?

    Because I’m going to have to disagree with you there.

  3. Bill Ruhsam says:

    Sharon: S’ok as long as you don’t loudly disagree. Muttering under your breath is fine. Leaping up and screaming “Bullshit!” at the top of your lungs while swinging a flail is probably bad form.

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