Research hacks #18: 20 further tips on fielding questions after a conference paper

For students who want to work faster, smarter and more effectively

This is the second of two posts on how to field questions after your paper at an academic conference. The first one, which covers preparing for question time and knowing your main point, can be found here.

Get to know the main types of question

If you want to know how to answer any given question, it is useful to have a sense of the different types of question that are customarily asked at conferences. Here are the main types of question I have heard asked over the years:

  • “Can you explain…” Someone is genuinely interested but simply didn’t understand something you said. You answer by going back to the point in your paper to which they are referring and fleshing out your point at more length. Simple. If you have an example or illustration, use it. When you’ve finished explaining, ask if the explanation made more sense second time round. If the questioner is asking about something very technical that most people in the room will not understand, keep your response brief and offer to chat further with them later in the day.

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  • “Have you thought about X?” This can be three sorts of question masquerading under the same words.
    • The first sort is benign, and its tone is “hey, I think there’s a book or article you might be interested in”. You don’t need to defend yourself or elaborate on what they have said, just  thank the questioner and note down their suggestion.
    • The second sort of question masquerading under the formula “Have you thought about X?” has more the tone of “I’m struggling to understand your paper, but something you said reminded me of X, whose work I do know. Could you talk about them please?” If you have something to say about X then great, go for it. If not, then perhaps ask the questioner to let you in on their thinking a little more: “what was it about my paper that put you in mind of X?” or “what, specifically, are you thinking of in X’s work that resonates with my paper?” The more concrete and specific the questioner gets, the easier it will be for you latch on to something to talk about.
    • The final sort of “Have you thought about X?” question is the most aggressive of the three. Reading between the lines, the questioner is saying “I’m surprised you haven’t read X, because he/she/it completely undermines everything you have said!” The first thing to realise here is that X almost certainly does not undermine everything you have said, unless you begin with X’s assumptions and use X’s concepts. So don’t panic. Again, invite the questioner to be as concrete and specific as possible and try to find the point at which the axioms or commitments of your own position differ from those of X. You might end up with a response something like “I can see that, if you start where X starts, then my position would indeed seem to be as you describe. But that’s not where it starts. Let me explain…”
  • The next sort of question boils down to saying “Here is my pet gripe about your thinker…” Someone goes off on a rant about your main author in a way that seems like a laundry list of complaints that has been compiled over many years and that has been lying dormant, ready to be unleashed at just such a time as this. You don’t need to be drawn into defending your author at all points. If some of the gripes impinge directly on the main point of your paper, deal with them. If they don’t, then resist being dragged away from your main argument into myriad winding dark alleys in which the question time threatens to become hopelessly lost.
  • Then there is the “Look at my superior knowledge” question. This sort of intervention is more about the questioner than the paper. Someone tries to show you that they know more about your topic than you do. Don’t be intimidated. Once more, know what you are defending. If you have researched and written your paper well, you will know what your main point and supporting arguments are. If the questioner’s intervention does not touch on those, then gently point it out. If it does, deal with the question on your home territory, i.e. talk about your paper’s main point and supporting arguments. Get the questioner to explain how what they are saying relates to the specific points you made, not to your thinker/author in general.
  • Next type of question: “I have a nit to pick”. The questioner asks you about some detail of what you said, perhaps something you said in passing, and their question relates only remotely to your main point. Answer the question briefly in its own terms, and then try to bring the discussion back to your main argument by reiterating where the nit-picker’s point sits in the overall structure of your paper.
  • No-one in the audience likes the “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…” type of question. This is the sort of intervention that wants to be a mini-paper in its own right, an extended monologue dressed up as a question. The questioner takes advantage of having the floor to tell you all their great ideas, rather than asking you about the paper. A polite “So what are you asking about my paper?” may be required at the end of such a diatribe.
General principles
  • Assume the best in a question and a questioner unless you have clear evidence proving otherwise.
  • Questions are an opportunity for you to reinforce and expand what you have said, and to explore new implications. They are not a threat. Welcome them.
  • Questions are a reward for clarity. If no-one could understand your paper you are unlikely to get many questions. A probing question shows that you explained your point clearly enough for someone to understand it.
  • All the same body language tips apply for Q&A as for your paper. Smile, make eye contact, treat the questioner with respect.
  • Answer the content, not the tone. Some people seem very aggressive when asking questions because they are in fact being aggressive, and others just come over that way, even though they may not be aware of it themselves. If you get a question that seems aggressive, sarcastic or rude, my advice would be not to rise to the bait of the tone at all. Maintain your own composure and authority and answer the content of what is asked (if the question has any discernible content), leaving the tone aside. Don’t let the tone of the question dictate the tone of the answer. If you need to put someone in their place (and I think this is very rare), do it politely and without losing your poise.
  • Nobody likes to look ignorant or naive. If you have been asked an ignorant or naive question, deal with the questioner gently and let them down lightly, in the same way you would want to be treated if you realised you had asked a silly question.
  • If all else fails and your mind goes completely blank, you can always go back to your main point. Try to bring questions back to your main point as you are able, and if necessary you can ask the questioner to help you see how their question relates to your main point.
  • If a questioner insists on a whole string of follow-ups and you feel yourself being dragged further and further from what you are trying to say, don’t feel you need to indulge them until, like a dog with a gnawed bone, they finally put you down in exhaustion. Invite them to continue the conversation with you over coffee or lunch, or stress that other members of the audience should get the chance to ask a quesiton.
  • Whatever you do, don’t ever pretend to know something you don’t, and don’t make anything up. Being found out to be making things up is far worse than being ignorant. I’ve seen this happen at conferences, and it is not pretty. If you don’t know the direct answer to the question then say so, and try to say something at least tangentially relevant to the question that you do know.
  • You don’t have to answer the question directly. It may contain a flawed assumption or rest on a misunderstanding, or it may be the “have you stopped beating your wife?” type of question that you can’t answer directly without inculpating yourself or your thinker. If that’s the case, make that your answer: correct the assumption or the misunderstanding, or show how the question is loaded.
  • Don’t let people attack your images or analogies. They are not intended to be perfect models in every respect. They are meant to provide a helpful analogy in (usually) one important respect. Don’t let people criticise aspects of your images and analogies that are irrelevant to the point you are making, as if that were the same thing as critiquing your main argument itself.

This is a much expanded and updated version of a post I originally published on September 5, 2014.
CC Image courtesy of Macmillan Cancer Support on Flickr.

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