Building Conference Karma 2: Question Time

In my previous post about building conference karma, I forgot to address the issue of question time, one of the most daunting arenas that many early career and postgraduate researchers face.

Given that question time is usually only about 10 minutes, it’s a wonder that one could get that exercised about it.

I’ll tell you what it is, though, that had me breaking out in cold sweat before a paper:

It was the potential ridicule, hostility, dismissal or displays of ignorance in question time.

Sure, delivering a paper brings with it a certain amount of nervousness, but I’ve hardly ever seen interjections during someone’s paper (unless they’ve gone way, WAY over time and their audience is rebelling).

If someone’s going to object to your paper and its ideas, it will happen in question time.

A basic outline about question time, if you haven’t been there yet: 

When you give a paper at a conference or seminar, you’re allocated a certain amount of time for the presentation and some afterwards for questions.

Depending on the conference you’re at, there may be a set template for the panel, or you’re meant to work it out with the Chair of your session beforehand. This is why it’s a good reason to turn up to your session at least 5 minutes earlier, to make sure you know what shape it’s going to take and you get to meet your fellow paper-givers (I think of this as a common courtesy, but I know there are many others who don’t give turning up with 5 seconds to spare a second thought).

There are usually two main ways question time is done:

  1. All papers are run through first, and question time, say, is the last half hour of the session with queries addressed to any of the speakers. As mentioned in the earlier post, this is where good conference participants shine their presence to a burnished gold with considerate, distributed questions.
  2. Question time takes place after each paper and, say, 10 minutes is allocated for that paper. This is great when the discussion flows and there is a good level of engagement, but very painful if people can’t think of anything interesting to pick up on. A good chair can overcome anything, even the most awful conference paper and its aftermath, but it must be said that good chairing is a skill that many don’t possess.

I find that my major anxiety is feeling that a question will catch me out, that someone will ask something and I won’t know the answer. I’ve become much better with this issue, mostly because I’m not as hung up about being an ‘expert’ and assuming that I was meant to be able to chat at length about anything that had my research area’s keywords involved.

General question time manner:

When you’re up at the podium/lectern, or in a panel in front of a room, everyone is looking at you during question time. Remember this and don’t:

  • look bored (especially when people are asking you questions).
  • make faces at questions, no matter how strange/stupid they are (this holds for your own questions as well as those directed at others).
  • start doodling on paper, unless you know how to doodle as if you’re taking copious, thoughtful notes.

So, as the paper-giver, what are some good strategies to employ when you’re put on the spot?

Questions can come from anywhere and address anything. Many of them come from a place called Left Field.

The following suggestions only work if your paper was halfway decent and you’re fairly well versed in your core research field. If you truly have no clue, or can’t answer something that refers to a foundational piece of your presentation’s raison d’etre, then these may not help.

If someone asks you something that:

  • you can’t answer right then and there (either because you want to think through your response or you suddenly draw a blank), you can always say something like, “That’s a really interesting question. Thanks. I’m not sure I can answer it right now, but I’d like to have a chat about it later”, and follow up afterwards.
  • comes square out of Left Field, you will probably have the sympathy of the rest of the room anyway because, chances are, the question came from a serial nut-bag that they’ve had to deal with themselves. If you don’t think you can get away with just smiling, nodding, and saying, “Thanks, that’s something I hadn’t thought about!”, try shepherding discussion back to safer ground (e.g. “Hmmm, that’s an interesting way to look at it. I’ve found it most useful to approach this topic this way…”).
  • indicates they have completely misunderstood your argument, you can either set out to rectify it head-on, or you can look thoughtful, thank them for the question, and say something like “It’s interesting that you read it that way because my paper’s focus was on X because…” (with this latter strategy, you get to confirm your argument while not necessarily having to spell out to the questioner that they’ve missed the point, something that can be quite awkward).
  • is openly hostile (and you don’t know why), you can weather it with a bit of hedging and possibly turn a question back on them to try to see where they’re coming from. Of course, sometimes it’s not worth the bother if someone’s decided to be contrary and chose your paper to do it in. If this is the case, you might just have to bite your tongue and say that you’d have to disagree with their interpretation/theory/ whatever. Similarly, there are those (who you can usually pick early on, so always have your freak radar switched up at conferences) who become the pesky questioners throughout an event. They’re probably not worth engaging with to any extent, but if they manage to bring up a point that you don’t mind talking about (on your terms, not theirs) feel free to take the opportunity to shepherd the topic once more.
  • is openly hostile (and you know why), you can choose to have an all-out stoush with them, or you can defuse the stand-off by saying something like, “As we’ve discussed before…” (to indicate to others in the room that this isn’t the first time this person’s attacked you, that it’s akin to their hobby), or “I know you disagree with X’s methodology, but I find it useful because…” (get it back to constructive territory that allows you to talk more about your research).The worst case of this that I’ve seen is a more established scholar choosing to attack a postgrad who was giving her very first conference paper. The established scholar – oh, let’s call her Freaky – decided to pull rank in the research field and sought to invalidate the postgrad’s research by calling into question the integrity of the student’s interview sources. The entire room was appalled by Freaky’s behaviour and no-one thought that she’d behaved professionally. The student, who felt (quite understandably) destroyed by the attack, apologised and lost the confidence to take Freaky on.Often, when people are so immediately hostile in general question time, you can rest assured it’s usually them, not you. You can also usually assume that the room will be sympathetic towards you because – in Australia, at least – question time is not meant to be like the Colosseum. Sure, discussions get active and not everyone will agree, but it’s meant to be a supportive intellectual exercise, not a take-down.

A good response to questions (particularly if you’re on the 2nd or 3rd day of the event) allows you to bring in what others have highlighted, or emphasises how your work complements the major concerns of the conference thus far. It ties your work into the flow of the intellectual discussion at the event. This isn’t always possible these days, especially with conferences that have so many parallel sessions that you don’t even get to know who’s at the conference, let alone what the general threads of it have been. Still, it’s a good thing to do if you can manage it.

Also, don’t just disappear after your panel. Sometimes, well-meaning members of the audience have constructive criticism that they don’t want to share in public during question time, but do want to take up with you privately. So, make yourself available as part of the larger conversation that is the conference. A colleague suggested this advice to me because she’d been at a session where a young scholar had made significantly incorrect generalisations in a paper that would’ve been particularly difficult and awkward to broach in the public forum of question time.

Finally, there’s nothing wrong with saying that you don’t know the answer if you have nothing to give. Really. It’s allowed. There’s nothing worse than someone fumbling around for an answer and cornering themselves with their rambling. It’s painful, it makes you look like a fool, and everyone’ll be wincing. It’s better to admit ignorance and move on.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

4 Responses to Building Conference Karma 2: Question Time

  1. Carlos Ferreira says:

    One of the things I find very useful is the monthly seminars my department runs, where we as postgrads can sit down, observe how more experienced academics deal with question time, and learn from their responses (or mistakes). At certain points in the year postgrads get to present their research and get grilled themselves, which helps (some of us at least) build up confidence in a safer environment.

    Once in an international conference someone asked me a really interesting, and challenging, question about the model I was presenting. I had no idea what to reply, and was really interested, so I found myself saying “that’s a really good point. What’s your opinion on that?”. The other person was so taken aback, he couldn’t answer either. We ended up having a 30 minute chat after the session – needless to say, this was a positive and engaged academic I was talking to, not Dr Freaky.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      An internal seminar series is excellent for trialling papers and getting a taste of the conference/symposium format. I’ve always found it very instructive to see my peers in action, too, as how they couch questions (or respond to them) tells me a lot about what they’re like as researchers, co-workers, and potential collaborators.

      I think most academics out there aren’t Dr Freaky (or don’t intend to be, anyway). I’ve had questions where my immediate response was (internally): “They hate what I’m doing!”. With further conversation, which is most often initiated by the person who I thought hated my work, it transpires that they just weren’t sure about one part of the methodology, or had mis-remembered a study, or really wanted to know more about it but asked in a confronting rather than encouraging way (social skills, some academics…).

  2. Great post. I’ve had that senior academic (who thought I was a post-grad but I wasn’t) taking me down and really it was her and LOTS of people came up to me later to tell me how much they liked my paper and how out of line she was.

    Also, the staying afterwards because some will not want to ask publicly is so important. Not least because some of those people don’t really have a question but do have an interest in your work and want to tell you that they liked the paper and they are working on x which is related and … well some of those people are people you want to have lunch with or go for beer with. Those are the people that you will have the really in depth intellectual conversations with that attracted you to academe in the first place.

    Do not run out before you meet the people that make this all worthwhile!

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Couldn’t agree more with you re meeting up with those who want to have a more in-depth chat about mutual interests and don’t necessarily have a question. Those are my favourite kind of conference people. ;)

      I’ve always found it extremely valuable to stay with a (good) conference, rather than hare off to other events or duck in+out of sessions. The intellectual momentum at good conferences is hard to beat. Having a long line of conference presentations may look good short-term (i.e. conf-hopping so you don’t actually stay for the full deal for any of them), but they start working against you if papers don’t turn into articles!

      PLUS giving people the time to come and find you means you come away from the event feeling like it was much more worthwhile than fielding those 3 questions in your designated question time.

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