The question in question

One year at our annual Siggraph conference, I was the chair of one of the technical paper sessions. That position comes with certain responsibilities.

For one thing, you are responsible for calling on people in the audience who want to ask questions. That is assuming, of course, that somebody ends up wanting to ask a question.

Every once in a while, an author presents his or her work, and nobody in the audience ends up asking a question. When that happens, it is expected that the session chair will rise to the occasion and ask a pertinent question.

Unfortunately, during one of the paper presentations I zoned out. And wouldn’t you know, at the end of that presentation there were no questions.

So here I was, faced with the responsibility of asking a question, and having no idea what the author had just been talking about. So I decided to try to fake it.

“Great presentation,” I said. “If you had another year to work on this,” I asked, “What would you focus on?”

The author was very eager to answer my question. He happily explained to the audience how he would extend his research given another year.

During the coffee break that followed, I got into a conversation with a colleague. He told me that he had really enjoyed the session, and then he made a surprising observation.

“You know,” he said, “it occurred to me that the question you asked would have worked equally well in any situation. What do you think?”

I couldn’t think of a response, so I just nodded thoughtfully.

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