About Don Norman


Discussions, Not Talks

I no longer give talks: I engage in discussion with the audience by answering questions.  This way, I know that my remarks are of interest to the audience. I have found that audiences really enjoy this format. They often complain that the discussion was too short.

Several things are required to make this work:

  1. That I am sent some advance material (or we schedule a pre-event discussion) so that I understand the themes and topics that will be of interest.
  2. A person assigned to moderate the question asking by selecting questions from the audience (often submitted in real-time over chat). The moderator can either read the question or (even better) call upon the person who submitted the question to ask it (displaying that person on the screen). This way, it feels like a person-to-person conversation.
  3. The interaction should start with a few prepared questions to get things going and to give the audience time to break their hesitancy to interact.
  4. Note that after a question is asked, I expect a discussion, so do not let the questioner sit down.  I may ask them, “Why did you ask this question?”  And I expect that when I give an answer, the person may ask a follow-up question.

What I do NOT want:

Remember, I want this to be a discussion.  If you collect questions ahead of time, then it is in danger of no longer encouraging discussion. It can become the rather dull:

In the classroom or school lecture hall:

Many students seem to ask questions that they are not interested in — they are told by their professor to ask a question. Please only allow students who are truly interested to ask questions, who then wait for my answer and can ask further related questions about my reply (or who can clarify the question when I ask for more information).   The discussion then looks like A, below. To make this work, it has to be like B, below.

For conferences that use professional production services

When a professional is hired, it is a worse disaster than the scenario outlined above for students. The professional usually has no understanding of the topic, the questions, the answers, nor of the interests of the audience. They tend to read a question and then go away to do some other activity, and then return to read the next question. I can’t even ask a clarifying question. The discussion then looks like A, below. To make this work, it has to be like B, below.

The moderator MUST be some expert in the subject who is interested in having a delightful conversation with me. If questions are asked by the audience in electronic form (chat), the moderator, or better yet, an assistant, gathers them from the audience, organizes them so that similar questions are lumped together, and gives them to the moderator. The moderator then asks the ones judged to be of most relevance to the discussion. Otherwise, the discussion will be like A, below. To make this work, it has to be like B, below. In fact, it is worse than the talks with students.

A: The Wrong Way To Do Discussions

  1. Ask a question, get an answer
  2. Ask a completely unrelated question, get another answer
  3. Repeat from 2.

B. The Correct Way To Do Discussions

  1. Ask a question, get an answer.
    • Get a follow-up question. 
    • Engage the audience in discussion.
  2. When the topic is sufficiently discussed (before the audience loses interest),
  3. Repeat from 1.