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Sometimes asking a question is less about curiosity and more about preening. At Davos, this approach is almost the norm. More often than not, a question isn’t really a question at all.

This problem is not unique to Davos and it has some far-reaching ramifications. If this gathering of elite thinkers and people with the potential to make change is not immune to such grandstanding, what opportunities are we losing to press people on questions that matter? Are we wasting a perfect chance to create change and engage in real debate about important issues?

How it works

In all of the sessions I have attended in Davos so far in 2015, the question-and-answer period at the end has stood out. Most questioners don’t seem to, well, have a question. Even if they do, the main goal is to make their presence known and to get the speaker or panel to accede that their point is as valid and important as the ones the experts on the stage have made.

Here’s how it works:

  • Once called upon, the questioner stands, announces their name, title and organisation. “I’m so-and-so, the CEO of Important Company X.”
  • Time to launch into a question? Not so fast. Then, the questioner launches into a background speech, rambling about what their organisation or company does, highlighting achievements and proffering accolades. “Our company is the largest manufacturer of tiny widgets in the world, with 10,000 employees in 50 countries — and we just invented the most advanced widget known to man.”
  • Question time? No, not yet. Once the corporate CV is complete, it’s time for the personal side. Yes, a run-down of what the questioner has done in the past. “Before I was CEO of Important Company X, I was a leading analyst in the field, a five-time author, including a book I wrote on revolutionary tiny widgets, and I had humble beginnings as a school teacher.”
  • Now, we’re almost at the question. Only, it’s often not a question, it’s a position statement. “My thoughts on your topic are clear… and although the entire panel said the future of widget manufacturing is automation and that’s a problem for global wages and labour, I think you’ve missed the point entirely.”
  • A question? Maybe? Is it time for the question? Most often, if a question is asked, it’s an effort to get the panel or speaker to agree with the questioner’s mindset or viewpoint. “Would you agree that…” or “Don’t you think it’s correct to say…” The entire thing has turned out to be an effort to be seen and influence opinions, not really ask anything at all. 

The bad news

This tactic is not unique to Davos; we’ve all seen people do it at other conferences, but it is so common here, it almost feels like each person is following a mandatory template for question-asking. Is this sort of presentation vis-à-vis question a hallmark of people who then rise to become CEOs, board members, and politicians, or is something that is contagious — someone does it early in the WEF meeting in a session and then people pick it up and carry on doing for the entire World Economic Forum meeting?

One more thing: You might think this approach would be off-putting to other participants. And sometimes it is. But, other times, it is actually very effective — at least in attracting attention to the questioner. How do I know? After one panel I attended, I hurried over to ask a question of the person who said the most interesting thing during the session. It wasn’t someone on the panel. It was a questioner.

Still, the lack of true questioning concerns me, and as I chatted with people during the breaks, it was on their minds as well. Once a year, we gather some of the world’s top thinkers and doers in politics, economics, business, society and even culture. It is a real opportunity for rigorous debate about some important issues. Let’s not waste our chance to truly create change by engaging in an active way with real questions that could help illuminate solutions. 

Lucy Marcus is an award winning writer, board chair and non-executive director of several organisations. She is also the CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting.

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