Asking Good Questions

Recently, I was lucky enough to speak at the 7th International conference on Time Series and Forecasting (ITISE). The conference itself had excellent collection of talks with a applications in completely different fields. Energy, neuroscience and, how can we not, a great deal of COVID19-related forecasting papers. It was a mix of online and in-person presentations, and with a slew of technical hiccups consuming a lot of valuable minutes time was of the essence. Very few minutes, if any, for questions. I attended my first conference well over a decade ago, and my strong feeling is that things have not changed much since. There is simply not enough training when it comes to the way slides should (and should not) look like, how to deliver a 20 minutes talk about a paper which took a year to draft, and indeed, which questions are good and which are just expensive folly.

Asking good questions is very important. Most researchers are feedback-thirsty. They are heavily invested in the conference, potentially traveling many hundreds, thousands even, of kilometers to attend. Therefore bad questions are annoying, not only for the presenters but also from the audience standpoint; any question through the gate comes unavoidably at the expense of other dormant questions from the rest of the audience. Here below are few thoughts I put on paper many years ago and have decided to share it here as it’s as relevant as always.

Bad practice: being inconsiderate

  • Although the settings may look like a class, it is not. Might be that in your own work you struggle with similar choices, which information criteria to use, which number of lags, which bandwidth and so forth. This is not a good forum for these sort of questions as it is too you-specific, too basic and is very boring for everyone else.
  • Prioritize. I “love” a question that starts with “I have two questions and two short comments..”. Do not fool yourself to think you can “squeeze” it in. What is more likely to happen is that you will speak fast and be unclear, and the presenter will ask you to repeat what exactly is it that you ask. Moreover, perhaps your “two short comments” do not require a reply as far as you are concerned, but the presenter will (naturally) respond on those as well which consumes the minutes up. So, prioritize and pick one out of your “two questions and two short comments”.
  • It’s OK to disagree, but do it silently. Perhaps the reply you got was not what you expected; there is no need to explain why the presenter is wrong and why your proposal is better. The need to defend your argument is solely your own, so skip variants of the form: “I still think my suggestion is better since…”. These kind of last words do not really serve anyone and can result in a dead-end back and forth between asker and presenter.
  • You are experienced, we understand. Spare us the introduction: “few years back I was working for company X, and there we had a similar situation to what you are describing, blah blah… but that’s a different story. So I guess my question is..”. Suffice yourself with the core version of the question and lose the wrapping.

  • Good practice: be helpful

  • Methods. Don’t ask about spectral analysis if you don’t know much about it, but it is good to ask if you are experienced with it and are familiar with specific implementation issues that you wonder about.
  • Intuition. It is good to ask a question about presented results that you might expect to be reversed or that are not in-line with theory for example.
  • Both of the above are useful for the presenter as it helps her figure out which direction questions come from, so that she can better clarify it in the actual text.

  • Make reasonable suggestions. Not out-of-the-blue, if the authors chose to use factor model, don’t suggest Bayesian VAR. The authors made their modeling choices and will not change them because you think another option is better. You can make a difference with a suggestion that does not require many hours of work. For example, if the study compares few forecasting methods, you can suggest examining the performance of a simple average of those methods, or if someone uses LASSO, you can suggest Adaptive LASSO. Your goal here is to plant the idea and convince the presenter that it is doable and likely to improve the paper.
  • References are always nice. People frequently approach someone who asked something during the session and request the reference cited. Literature is hard to completely cover.
  • Although written with conference sessions in mind, most of the above is relevant in general, and can be concisely summarized: be considerate and helpful.

    As Paul R. Halmos wrote, “Do, please, as I say, and not as I do.” I too have trouble following my own advice, but awareness is always a solid first step. experience.

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