You’ve just finished your conference presentation and breathe a sigh of relief.
Well done, you made it through to the end without anything going wrong.
Then you realise the worst of it isn’t over.
You say those fateful two words “any questions?”
You can’t breathe and time seems to stand still, as you wait for people so start asking the most awkward questions ever, with the joint aim of showing off how good they are and making you feel stupid.
But are conferences really like this?
Many people take the view that most of the audience at a conference are genuinely interested in what you have to say. They ask questions because they want to know more or to inform you of some other relevant information. Sometimes it isn’t even a question!
It is advisable to bear in mind how you want to be seen as a person during the Q & A session.
Do you want to be seen as a person who listens to the audience’s questions and is keen to engage with them OR as someone who thinks the questions are stupid and starts being defensive?
How do you handle those awkward questions?
There are a few common situations that you can prepare for such as:
The question ‘hog’ – this person asks one question after another and you cannot move on to answer anyone else!
The best way to handle this is to break eye contact and repeat the questions to the whole room and then answer it to the audience. This is good practice anyway as sometimes the audience cannot hear the question properly and engaging them all with your answer keeps their attention.
The know it all – who asks about something outside of your research area but still on topic – thank them for their question and explain that it isn’t an area you have covered in your research but sounds interesting and it’s an area you will look into / would be willing to discuss later.
Or depending on the question you could throw it back and say that it sounds interesting but not something you have considered so far and ask them for their thoughts.
The picky people – you may have got something slightly wrong e.g. pronunciation etc. just thank them for letting you know and move on.
The one who loves to argue – it is best to avoid an argument, especially as that will make others feel uncomfortable, so try to agree to disagree if it is a difference of opinion. If you think you are right then offer to provide your evidence to them if they leave their details and to discuss it with them at a later date when you have both had a chance to review it.
Other top tips
Always be honest – Whatever the situation is, you should never lie. It is better to admit that you do not know and you will look into it. It is important that your audience trusts you and believe what you are saying, so never start making things up.
Don’t be afraid to pause – it is easy to panic and go blank so don’t be afraid to stop and think. The audience will probably be impressed that you are taking the question seriously and thinking about it before responding. It may feel like an eternity when you pause for a few seconds but for the audience it goes quickly.
Conferences are an ideal place to find others who have similar interests and may be able to help with your research in the future We can learn a lot from others who help us to explore other ideas and challenge our thinking. So take questions from the audience seriously and aim to come across as a person they would want to work with in the future. After all you never know if there is a future collaborator or employer out there!
If you have some tips on handling conference questions please share them by commenting below.