Fixing Terrible Economics Presentations II: Guide for the Audience

In an earlier post, I outlined several all-too-common flaws in economics seminar presentations. Those comments were directed toward the presenter. However, having a valuable seminar is not just the responsibility of the speaker — the audience shares in the experience and yes there are some guidelines for being a good seminar participant. I’m going to use this post to address some of the more troublesome infractions of seminar etiquette for participants.  

1. Read the paper in advance! — Just kidding. It’s quite common for seminar participants to go into a seminar “blind” so to speak. Not reading the paper isn’t a sin. If you can read it ahead of time that can be good but it shouldn’t be necessary if the presenter has done his or her job. You have the right to expect to go into a seminar and learn the main points of the paper without having to study the material ahead of time. There may be people who have read the paper before hand (people in the field who have personal reasons to know the paper thoroughly) but don’t feel bad if you aren’t one of them.  

2. Arrive on time! OK, this is a simple rule you can follow to improve the seminar for everyone. If you arrive late it disrupts the talk; you miss the introduction (which is often the key part of the talk) and you make it seem like you don’t really care. If something came up and you’re running late then fine, politely find a seat and try to catch up the best you can. If you are habitually late then you need to get your act together and show up on time.  

3. Try not to ask “exploratory” questions. An exploratory question is a question which doesn’t deal directly with the talk but instead asks the presenter to consider or comment on material which may not be in the paper. Suppose a presenter has just gone through the first slide of the model and someone asks “Have you considered what would happen if you added […] ?” This is probably not a good question at this point in a talk. There are basically two possibilities: (1) the speaker has considered this possibility and will get to it later in the talk or (2) the speaker hasn’t considered the possibility. If it’s (1) then the question only serves to delay the presentation and interrupt the flow. If it’s (2) then the question is either going to embarrass the speaker or it will get the speaker talking about something that isn’t in the paper. None of these outcomes is desirable.  Questions that are open-ended should be left for the end of the talk (assuming the speaker doesn’t address the question along the way). Keep a piece of paper to write down such questions and ask at the end if there is time.  

4. The questions you should ask are “clarifying questions.” These are questions which are intended to (duh) clarify. You misunderstood what the speaker just said. You didn’t understand how equation (iii) followed from (ii). You don’t understand the units of the graph. ASK. These questions are excellent because they help the audience understand the presentation (others almost surely had the same confusion). They serve to pace the talk. (Note, the speaker should have the correct answer to any clarifying question. If he or she doesn’t then they should be embarrassed.) 

5. Don’t ask so many questions (or “harp on” about an issue) that it makes it difficult for the presenter to get through the material. Let the presenter finish. If you ask a question but aren’t satisfied with the answer you can ask again after the talk. If you keep pressing the issue, you aren’t making progress you are just damaging the talk for everyone else. 

6. Finally, in the immortal words of the great Tom Brady, don’t be a turd! As a field, economics is nasty enough as it is. We really don’t need the audience acting like brats during seminars to add to the problem. I once spoke with an economist from a top program who actually boasted that, in his department, the audience was so aggressive that often the presenter didn’t make it out of the introduction. I pointed out that this was perhaps the dumbest thing I had ever heard and that it would be more efficient to simply not invite the speaker in the first place or perhaps you could lock the speaker in a visitors office — that way they wouldn’t even get to the introduction. If you are being hyper aggressive or nasty — particularly to a junior economist or to a graduate student — you really need to stop. It’s not productive. It doesn’t impress anyone. It compromises the value in the seminar. Worst of all — it gives other members of the audience the impression that this is acceptable behavior. It’s not. Don’t be a turd.