Think tank event etiquette: getting the most out of an event

6 December 2011

Micah Zenko’s post on How to Attend a Talk: Etiquette for Students, Wonks, and Speakers is a bit tongue-in-cheek. We’ve all seen them:

The “What About My Thing?” Person: This person begins their comment with the phrase: “I was wondering if you had considered…?” But, of course, the speaker hadn’t, because the contribution has nothing to do with topic presented.

The Shoehorn: Similar to the previous type, this Jenny or Johnny One-Note interjects their pet peeve, no matter how entirely disconnected it is to the topic at hand. This can be expected from activists of every ideological stripe, staunch nationalists, or fundamentalists of any faith or methodological approach.

The Wonk Hipster: The wonk hipster initiates the unveiling of his hidden gems with, “Well if you’d bothered to read,” or, “You mean you’ve never heard of…?” More often than not, the secret information will not even be in the public domain, such as a recently assembled dataset that hasn’t appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.

The “You Don’t Know Me!” Foreigner or Ex-Pat: This person was either born or spent many years living in a country under discussion. They need to emphasize that “their” country is very complex, with a rich and complicated history, and one that is wholly impossible for outsiders to ever comprehend.

The Spoiler: At events, this audience member is often a respected professor or elder statesman, who has marshaled a team of graduate students and researchers to advance and defend their cause. In addition, the spoiler is often at odds with someone else in the audience, or with a wider academic or policy field, and uses their time to loudly berate some marginal aspect of the speaker’s presentation, blithely unaware of how jarring and inappropriate it is to the discussion.

The Conspiracy Theorist: Like Occam’s razor inverted, the complex logic chain behind their comments—for the conspiracy theorist never asks a question—requires an unbelievable level of secret cooperation between governments, businesses, the media, unions, and/or fraternal organizations. Other members in the audience, socialized to be tolerant of diverse viewpoints, allow the conspiracy theorist to ramble far too long.

Zenko advises that:

The next time you are sitting in such an event, ask a relevant question, pass the microphone, and listen.

I am not sure I agree. I have felt, for some time, that the usual approach to events in many think tanks (listen, ask a question, listen) is not just not-good-enough but also contradictory of the whole idea of a think tank. All too often I’ve been to events where participants are warned to limit themselves to questions. No comments. There is an assumption that the speakers are the experts (the only experts) at the event. But the event themselves are not organised to encourage debate. Often there are one or two speakers and one or two discussants but the latter are not there to offer an alternative view and rather they use their time to support the speaker’s conclusions or messages.

Events, the truth is, are seen as just another communication channel for think tanks rather than an opportunity to encourage a discussion and defend their own ideas in open debate. The Battle of Ideas offers an alternative:

No doubt many debates at the festival will be contentious. Indeed we invite speakers and audience alike to challenge conventional thinking. Of course sensibilities will be offended over the weekend. But let’s hold our nerve; after all, as the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas is not afraid of dissenting opinions, and encourages people to speak their minds.

it would be great if events had more than a single view, if the guests did not always agreed with each other, and if participants were allowed to voice their opinions (no rants, please) -and treated as equals. It may take a while but think tanks can do a great deal by educating their audiences.

As Jeffrey Puryear argued, the most interesting and valuable contributions of think tanks may not be intellectual but psychological: the hundreds of events and seminars that Chilean think tanks organised throughout the 1980s helped to restore the mutual trust and understanding missing from Chilean politics and that had led to the rupture of democratic order.

Learning how to develop and use arguments, how to adapt them, communicate to different audiences, incorporate new ideas, defend one’s own beliefs, etc. are not matters that should be quickly dismissed. How we communicate is as (if not more) important than what we say.