In this fourth post on presenting a conference paper (following on from planning and writing a conference paper, delivering a paper and timekeeping and technology), I want to think through the often panic-inducing issue of how to approach the question and answer time at the end of your paper. This is the first of two posts on fielding questions.
Prepare for question time like you prepare for your presentation
- The first thing to say is that preparing for Q&A should be considered a task of equal importance to preparing for your presentation. Q&A is an important time: people often remember the exchanges after a paper more than the paper itself. If you prepare well for your paper but aren’t sufficiently ready for the question time then your overall presentation may fall flat and leave an underwhelming impression. You wouldn’t dream of giving a paper without thinking about it beforehand and having at least some notes in front of you. Don’t take the question time any less seriously.
- Prepare for questions by reading your paper through with a critical eye. If it helps, imagine that you are a particular critical reader you have encountered in the past. Ask yourself “what would he or she ask about this paper?”
- You know the weakest moments in your argument. Think what you might be asked about those.
- If you can, find people willing to read your paper and ask them to note down two or three questions that they would want to ask you.
- Once you have a reasonably comprehensive list of questions, put them in a document and take your time working out possible responses to each of them. Write the responses under the questions (preferably in key-word form) and take that document with you to your paper. Bring it out at the end of your presentation, and use it to jog your memory during the question time.
During question time itself
- Have a pen and paper in front of you during the Q&A. Note down key words from questions as they are asked so that you don’t forget what you are being invited to respond to, especially if the question has multiple parts. Also note down key words of your response as they occur to you, with the purpose of jogging your memory when you come to reply. That way, you don’t have to hold your whole answer in your head at once but can concentrate on listening carefully to the question. When the questioner stops you can glance down at your notes and be confident that you have something to say, rather than looking like a rabbit in the headlights.
- Don’t make your answers into new mini-papers. People want to hear something interesting in response to their question; they don’t want an extended monologue. 30 seconds to a minute at the most should be sufficient for most answers.
- If you don’t understand part of the question, feel free to ask the questioner for clarification rather than launching in and hoping for the best. You can say “Just let me make sure I’ve understood. Your question is about ____, right?”
- At the beginning of your answer it can be useful to restate or rephrase the question (especially if it was a long one). You can say, for example, “You are asking, I think, about…” This is also a moment when you can choose which part of a six-point question you want to focus on. Sometimes people’s questions wander off in multiple directions and you can’t do justice to them all, so don’t try. Pick something central to the questioner’s point that is also an issue you want to talk about and say something like “I’d like to pick up on your point that…”
- Assume that questions are in good faith and not hostile until you have incontrovertible evidence otherwise. If it is possible to interpret a question either as hostile or as friendly, assume the friendly interpretation unless or until you are proved wrong. More on handdling different types of question in the next post.
Know your main point, and stick to it
- One of the greatest helps in answering questions is to be very clear in your own head what your main point is, and therefore what it is you are (negatively) defending and (positively) commending. I suggested in a previous post that your conference paper should have one main point, and one of the many reasons why this is a good idea is that it helps you immensely in knowing how to deal with questions. Imagine that your paper has one main point, supported by multiple strands of supporting evidence and argument. Write them down on a piece of paper and have it in front of you during the question time. It will help you to discern quickly to which part of your paper a particular question is making reference, or indeed if the question is irrelevant to your paper.
Use your main and supporting points to work out what is at stake in the question
- If someone poses you a critical question, ask yourself 1) “is this attacking a) my main thesis, b) one of the supporting strands of evidence, or c) nothing I have said at all?” and 2) “if it is attacking one of the supporting strands, does the overall argument still hold whether or not this strand is present?” This will help you see what is at stake in the question, whether it is a) torpedoing your hull, b) knocking out one your rudders, or c) missing you altogether by a good ten feet.
- If you can’t see how the criticism is engaging with either your main point or supporting arguments, find a way of pointing this out politely to the questioner.
- If the question is only attacking one of the supporting strands, and if that strand is not necessary to your argument, then after defending the strand in your answer you should add that, even if you grant the questioner their point, the main thesis of your paper still holds.
- The art of answering questions was once helpfully explained to me with the image of a person holding a cricket bat, rooted to the spot, with people throwing tennis balls at them from all angles. They bat away the balls in front of them, on both sides, and behind, but they do not move. They have one fixed position that they are defending, and they stick to it. Balls that are not on course to hit them just sail past. In other words, know what you are trying to defend, and don’t move away from it. Don’t be drawn into flailing wildly with your bat at arm’s length. Keep it tight, know what you are trying to say, and then say it, defend and commend it.