When I was an instructor in graduate school, the syllabus I handed out to my students had a part that said “there’s no such thing as a dumb question. The only dumb question is the one you didn’t ask.” Having just finished my undergraduate studies, I knew this statement was garbage. I explained my thoughts to the person who insisted we put it in the syllabus, but she insisted that I was wrong. It wasn’t long before my point was proven.
In one of my classes, I was explaining how we’d be learning to use the internet – a relatively new concept back in 1996. One student raised his hand and asked “are we going to look at porn?” I replied by pointing out the dumb question quote in the syllabus and thanked him for helping me prove my point.
Even in the graduate-level classes I attended, I frequently heard dumb questions. Some were so basic a fifth grader could answer them. Others were answered just moments ago by the professor. Yes, not everyone gets every concept right away so I’m not knocking anyone for that. But a woman in a graduate level computer programming class should know how to open up a text editor.
So ask speakers, how should we best handle the dumb questions? Well it first depends on the type of question. If it’s a blatant attempt to make you look bad, then treat it like you would any heckler. You can ignore it, say you’ll answer it privately or make a joke back.
If it’s a question that you just answered a few moments prior, then you can answer it by repeating what you just said – no need to call attention to it unless it happens repeatedly.
If it’s a very basic question, you can give a quick answer but don’t go into great detail – the rest of the audience might find it annoying. If the person appears especially clueless, then offer to explain it to them afterwards.
Unfortunately, dumb questions do get asked and the more you speak, the more chances you’ll have to be asked one. Just keep your cool and stay positive. But remember to not let the question take up all the time you’re allotted. If you can deal with it quickly, then do so. Otherwise, offer to assist the questioner after you’ve finished your presentation. You won’t bore the audience and you’ll come across as helpful.