How to be amazing or awful at answering questions from the audience: your choice

Presenting at conferences is super-important. Nerves relating to public speaking are common, but no excuse for avoiding doing so. I hope this post may join some others in alleviating some of those nerves.

Let’s get to the point: when it comes to the part when the audience asks questions, you have two options (in what more discerning readers may detect to be a gross oversimplification, but it works to make a point):

Option A: come across like a thoughtful, open-minded, well-prepared scholar who listens attentively and is keen to engage with the people who have turned up to listen to you (but see my post on what your audience is really doing).

Option B: come across like a defensive, narrow-minded, rigid scholar who is ‘winging it’ through not only the conference but their whole PhD, a know-it-all who doesn’t want to be challenged or think differently about anything.

Your choice.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake, your preference is for Option A. Some of the performances I’ve seen, of students and those who have somehow earned the title ‘Dr’, would suggest they plump for Option B, but I think you’ll agree that isn’t a great idea.

You can radically increase your chances of succeeding in Option A in two easy steps.

Step 1: Know what kind of question is being asked, and what kind of questioner is asking it.

Step 2: Use this knowledge to inform your response.

Pat Thomson’s post suggests most people are asking out of genuine interest, for more information, or to alert you to something important and relevant that you appear not to be aware of. She also identifies the ‘offer’ of free supervision (which I would add seeks a dialogue at best, and an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong monologue’ at worst) or the just plain rude. Importantly Pat reminds us that the audience is usually pretty aware of what is going on when certain kinds of question are being asked. Don’t be the only one in the room to treat all questions at face value or as the same.

There is a good post by Allan Johnson for Times Higher Education that identifies:

  • the courtesy question,
  • the tell-us-what-you-want question,
  • the talk-to-me-personally question,
  • the wandering statement,
  • the obstinate question,
  • and the display of superior knowledge.

You should see from Allan’s list that there’s no guarantee the question is actually a question. His list should also lead you to some insights into the motives that lie behind some questions or ‘questions’, and the kind of people for whom those motives apply. I’ve come up with a slightly different list, with some clear overlap (I think Allan’s list is great but not exhaustive). In each case I suggest how you might respond to achieve Option A.

Type 1: The open ended more info question

Often people might genuinely not understand something, seek clarification, or ask for more background information. In its most generous form this goes like ‘Can you tell us a bit more about…’. It’s a dream question! And it should be one of the easiest questions to answer, assuming you know your stuff. This reinforces the importance of not including absolutely everything in your talk, and also that leaving some detail out isn’t a bad thing: it helps to produce a question in which you can show off your Option A credentials!

The best way by far to look really smart and well prepared is to design in a bit of a gap in your talk, produce or at least anticipate the ‘can you tell me more about X’ question, and then, wait for it, have a slide prepared AFTER your ‘last’ slide, with some details of the answer!

I’ve seen it done and it looks amazing. The presenter finishes on time. She or he might have said something like ‘obviously there’s a lot to say here but in the interests of time I will move on’ during the talk. This is a nudge to the audience to ask for more. Then the question gets asked, and presto, you skip forward a slide. Wow! This girl/guy really knows what she is talking about! Something as simple as moving a slide from the middle of your talk to after the conclusions can have a powerful effect. I dare you to try it!

Type 2: The ‘did you know this’ question

This might be a question though if so it is often a rhetorical one (the answer ‘no’ is expected) or simply a statement disguised as a question. It might even just be a statement: ‘I think XXX’s work might be useful here’. Of course the best answer is to say ‘yes I’ve come across that, and yes I’ve read it, but I didn’t think it was so useful because…’. If you haven’t read it, be truthful and say so, and perhaps ask the questioner why they think it would be so useful, or say you’d like to talk to them afterwards to get some references. This doesn’t show you’re an idiot, it shows you are honest and ready to take others’ ideas seriously.

Type 3: The testing for you question

This may or may not be intended as a test (see Type 6), but for whatever reason, someone has asked a really insightful question and you don’t know the answer. Maybe you actually do know but in the heat of the moment you draw a blank. Maybe you don’t know, but this doesn’t mean you have been discovered as an academic imposter (much as it may feel like this). By far the worst response is to leap immediately into a poorly thought through, make-it-up-as-you-go-along answer. This also tends to be the more common response among less experienced (or more arrogant) presenters. As Pat Thomson tells us “If they ask something you actually don’t know the answer to, then don’t try to cobble something together. You don’t have to have an immediate answer to everything. It’s OK to say that you hadn’t considered that and that you will think about it further… it’s fine to take a moment or two to compose what you will say”.

Pat argues, and I agree totally, that essentially no answer (the confession: I don’t know) is better than a crap answer. And that silence can be golden. If you get a difficult question, breath deeply. I mean it. In for four seconds, pause, out as slowly as you can. You’ll find your heart rate slows a bit. Far from the audience thinking your body has been occupied by a spirit from the other side, or that you’re about to faint, they are thinking ‘ooh, this person is actually bothering to consider her/his response’.

My personal favourite response is something like: ‘Well, that’s a really great question, and a very thorny issue. To do it justice I’d need more time to think about it carefully’. You could then follow up with ‘I will come and see you at the end’, or even better, steal some free education from the audience and throw it back: ‘I don’t have an obvious answer to that right now, do you have any thoughts on it yourself?’.

The benefits of this response are that it demonstrates a public respect for the questioner and her/his expertise, while showing the audience that you’re not willing to bullshit them. It means everything else you’ve said is stuff you’re confident of and sure about. They’re not sitting there getting spur-of-the-moment waffle.

Type 4: The ‘why aren’t you doing your research the way I would do it’ question

You finish your presentation and a hand goes up confidently and quickly. ‘Where is power in all this?’ asks the Foucault or governmentality person. ‘Where is gender in all this?’ asks the feminist. ‘Where is race?’ etc… You have to see these questions (and their questioners) for what they are. They are not questions at all, really. They are not even what Pat describes as free supervision. They are attempts to co-author your research by stealth. Except the disguise is pretty poor. No topic requires any research to attend to any theoretical framework, question, issue, text etc. If there are some obvious and popular ones that you haven’t been working with, it might be an idea to mention them in the presentation and explain why, heading off this kind of question early.

If you do get the question, don’t buckle and say ‘oh yes, you’re right, my whole thesis should change to be the one you suggest, would you like to be my new supervisor?’. But don’t pour fuel on the flames by trying to convince the questioner. You’re not going to win. I would say something like: ‘That’s an interesting point, and I can see why power/gender/race/etc would be interesting and relevant. However, that lies outside the scope of what I’m trying to do here, and my originality or value add comes from doing things differently’. With a little luck you will be able to truthfully say ‘that is interesting, but has been done before a lot (even mention a few names). I’m trying to come at this from a different perspective’.  The point here is not to say ‘No’ and question the assumption of the questioner, but ‘Yes but…’. As Pat suggests, succinct polite answers are the best way to shut this down. And shutting down is what you and the rest of the audience want.

Type 5: The ‘listen to me’ monologue

This question is not a question. Or it is a series of questions that seem unlikely ever to end. This is unacceptable and unprofessional but sadly not uncommon. The audience sees it for what it is and so should you. It is a statement spoken by an arsehole who likes the sound of her/his own voice and feels licenced to deviate from the conference program by turning themselves into a presenter. Again shutting down is the required response here.

If you’re really bolshy you could try revealing it for what it is: ‘Well you had a lot to say, and I’m not sure I could possibly answer all your questions, to which you have either given answers or appear to know what they are already’. Or ‘I’m sorry, you spoke for so long I somehow missed your question’. This certainly would be brave and would probably cause a curfuffle. But I’d love to see it one day!

More likely is you say: ‘Thank for your considered and detailed comments. I will take definitely them on board’. You can then take control off the chair (who should have done a better job and stopped the diatribe minutes ago) and identify the next questioner.

Type 6: The ‘I’m testing you’ question

This question is a deliberate test. The person asking the question knows the answer. Conclusion? They too are an arsehole. They are trying to find you out, show you up. So lesson one: be prepared and know your stuff. Read widely etc. Lesson two: don’t give an answer unless you know it’s right. If you guess you may be shown up to be wrong. Which is worse? Being demonstrably wrong and showing you don’t know what you’re talking about, or being willing to admit the limits of your knowledge? The latter leads to option A.

Type 7: The question motivated by anger, rudeness, politics, emotion etc

I’ve had plenty of these.  You might not be surprised (if you’ve read my other posts) that at times I’m not afraid of saying things bluntly or challenging people. My current research is about child and family health services, and plenty of people in the audience very quickly decide that the whole topic of my study amounts to government interference in family life and should be scrapped. No matter how well I’ve done my research, they hate it anyway. Elsewhere I’ve seen ‘hatchet jobs’ where profs engage in the academic equivalent of star wars, apparently trying to dismantle each other’s careers. Alternatively there might be something unnecessary and unprofessional in the tone of the question that turns a genuine question into a rude challenge to your intelligence.

In this case, I agree with Pat that the one making an idiot of herself or himself here is not you. Don’t become complicit in the idiocy. Don’t fight fire with fire. When people tell me the idea of parent education makes them sick to the core, I say ‘Thank you. Yes, quite a few people share your views and find the idea of working with parents in this way quite troubling. Personally, I’m convinced that these services are really valuable, and that the alternative is to turn our backs on parents who are struggling, which is not something I’m comfortable with. But I acknowledge this will always be contentious’.

Pat suggests you might ask the audience what they think of what has been said (fingers crossed they don’t agree!). You could also say ‘I can see that this is an issue you feel very strongly about, for good reasons. I’m not going to try to change your mind in a few seconds here, but I equally have reasons for my topic/approach that I would be happy to discuss with you afterwards’. Of course what you then do is find someone who asked a much better question and talk to them when it’s finished instead!

Conclusion 

  1. Diagnose the question (if indeed it is a question) type and what this tells you about the questioner and her/his motives or expectations
  2. Avoid responses that fuel flames and lead to heated dialogue
  3. Be prepared to think through before giving an answer
  4. Be prepared not to give an answer
  5. Have an answer pre-prepared on your slides!
  6. For the conspiracy theorists among you: you can either conspire with arseholes who are out to get you, or with the audience who see the arseholes for what and who they are. Go for the latter. Politely.
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9 thoughts on “How to be amazing or awful at answering questions from the audience: your choice

  1. elainemckewon

    Huge thanks, Nick! Great post on a pervasive yet little-discussed issue for early career scholars. I’ve actually searched this topic a few times on the web and didn’t find anything nearly as useful. I seem to get a Type 4 or 7 ‘question’ at just about every conference presentation. And although I’ve always managed to respond calmly and effectively (using some of the strategies you describe), I’ve long wondered how I could be better prepared. Presenting will be so much more enjoyable now that I have a solid approach to deal with arseholes of all stripes and keep the Q & A on-track 🙂 Thanks again!

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Elaine

      Thank you for your candid response! Yes, it is a sad reality that Type 4 and Type 7 questions are not a rare breed!

      It’s important to remember that while some questions can be headed off in your presentation (and others can be designed in or at least encouraged), it’s not your fault if there’s a arsehole in the audience!

      Reply
  2. Brian

    Hi Nick,

    I have reread your post, especially as I fly into Sydney tomorrow night to present my first paper at a conference. I am a mid-life worker, but early career researcher and EdD student. I have sought guidance an wisdom form one of my old under grad lecturers who assisted me through my masters; and has presented at numerous conferences. He read my presentation and rang me personally this morning and talked me through my paper; AND then moved to the types of questions, questioners, and comments I received and advised me to accept whatever happens gracefully (not me really-but I will try) and recognize that it is not personal. Without listing them, he almost matched your list – wierd or what?

    I did mention to him that I read your blog and am preparing myself, especially as the second presenter after me is doing their PhD on the topic I am presenting on. Interesting days ahead.

    Thanks for your guidance and post.

    Brian

    Reply
    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Brian!
      I’m pleased that you are getting consistent messages from others. ‘Weird or what?’ – in some ways, no! The other blogs I referred to in the post have said similar things, and I would hope that others recognise what is quite common behaviour in academic conferences. That said, the similarity in the typology you were independently offered is pretty cool nonetheless!

      And yes I admit it is not particularly in my instincts not to bite, but experience tells me those who bite rarely end up ‘winning’ – though it’s not a competition in academia (yeah, right!)

      Reply
      1. Brian

        Hi Nick

        A belated follow up (as I suffered an injury after coming back from Sydney), but the conference went well, my paper was well received and led to many discussions during the breaks. The A/Prof who moderated the sessions could not have been any more supportive unless she stood next to me and held my hand. I have had a critical essay based on the presentation accepted in a peer-review related journal – so a very positive experience for a first timer. Now, I am preparing for my confirmation seminar and the QPR conference in Adelaide in April, where I have a 10 minute spot. Thanks again.

  3. rusty (@mativity)

    Having a moderator or chairperson is also very helpful, to mediate between you and the audience. We tried it recently at our student-run conference, and found most presenters found it a support. I know I felt “protected” even though I still had to respond to the questions myself. Of course, the moderator has to be prepared to take a stand and interrupt verbose audience members, and also prepare a question themselves, in case noone asks one. Which makes volunteering to be a moderator/chair a good training in itself.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: academic conferences: advice for navigating the Q&A | making edible playdough is hegemonic.

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