181 – Answering questions after presenting a seminar or conference paper

You’re well prepared for a seminar or conference presentation, but as the day approaches, doubts and fears emerge. You worry about messing up in question time. What if they find an error in your work? What if they ask hard questions, or dumb questions, or make long rambling speeches instead of asking a question? Here are some ideas about how to handle these and other issues in question time.

Doing a good job in question time is mostly a matter of common sense, but it can help to have thought in advance about how you might handle tricky situations.

In general, it’s best to answer the question that is actually asked, if you can, rather than a vaguely related question (but there are exceptions, as outlined below). It’s worth taking a bit of care to think about what the questioner is really driving at. Ask for clarification if necessary.

If you have understood the question, and really don’t know the answer, don’t try to bluff it. Say that you don’t know. This looks much better to the audience. Attempts to bluff will be obvious to at least some, and perhaps all, of the audience.

It is fine to say something like, “That’s a good question. I’ll need to give it some more thought afterwards. Let’s talk later.” And move on to the next questioner.

An alternative is to say that you don’t know the answer to that question, but it reminds you of this other question, and give the answer to the other question. This violates my first suggestion, but you can get away with it if you admit you don’t know the answer to the real question.

It can be tempting to make up an answer to a question that you actually don’t know the answer to. This can be OK, as long as you start by saying that you don’t really know the answer, but here are some thoughts. It’s not a good idea to talk as if your response is definitely the answer, because a perceptive audience member could make you look silly.

Don’t be defensive about your work when you should actually concede a weakness that someone has pointed out. (A hard thing to do!) By all means point out any mitigating circumstances or rationalisations for you having adopted an approach with a weakness, but don’t deny that it is a weakness. Every study has weaknesses and limitations of one sort or another, and its just good scientific practice to acknowledge yours.

Sometimes you might give an answer, but then later in question time realise that your answer was wrong. In my view, you actually look good if you publicly admit your earlier error, and provide the correct answer. It shows you have high integrity and are really concerned to answer accurately.

It is fine to take a little while to think about a question before answering. Say something like, “let me think about that for a moment”, and give yourself 5-10 seconds.

Unless the questioner is dragging things on and wasting time, don’t start answering the question until they finish asking it. This gives you a bit of extra time to think, and makes sure you hear the actual question.

If you don’t understand the question (e.g. due to a strong accent, poor audio conditions, or poor wording of the question), ask the questioner to repeat it or to express is differently. If after one repetition you still don’t understand it, it’s probably best to offer to talk to them one-to-one later on, after question time has finished.

Having a co-author in the audience can be helpful if you get stuck, but guard against directing most questions to them. If you are a co-author in the audience, make sure you stay alert through the talk and the questions, because you might be called on at any moment. Co-authors should not offer criticisms of the work or the talk during question time. If criticisms are necessary, save them for later. Co-authors should be sparing in answering questions. Leave it to the speaker, if possible. But do help them out if they need it. A co-author who does respond to a question should make it clear to the audience that he or she is a co-author.

Sometimes audience members make a statement, rather than asking a question. You can respond to or expand on the statement if you want to, but you also have the option of saying, “I’ll take that as a statement, rather than a question” and moving on to the next questioner.

If a questioner is hogging the floor, the chair of the session should cut them off, but failing that, you can do so if you wish. If they haven’t asked a question yet, ask them what there question is. If they keep dragging out or repeating the same question, tell them that you’ve understood the question, and proceed to address it, if you can.

In a large room or one with poor acoustics, it often helps if you repeat the question for the benefit of those in the audience who couldn’t hear it. (This is assuming that there is no roving microphone for questioners to use.) The same strategy can be helpful if the question is ambiguous. This at least makes it clear which question you are actually answering.

If someone asks more than one question at a time, write down a couple of words about each one to remind yourself of what they are as you’re working through them. (You need to have a pen and paper with you for this.)

If the question relates to a particular slide in your PowerPoint presentation, go to that slide before you start answering. Here’s a nice PowerPoint trick to get you to the slide quickly. With the slide show still running, type in the slide number (it doesn’t display anywhere) and press enter. Alternatively, press ctrl-S and you get a menu of the slides. These commands are particularly useful if you have custom animations that you want to skip over, or if you have a lot of slides and you want one in the middle.

How long should your answer be? Not too long, not too short, just right. Thirty seconds to a minute is about the right length of answer for many questions. However, if you’ve provided a good answer in 10 seconds, don’t feel that you have to keep elaborating and extending it. Short answers are good.

It may be possible to anticipate the questions you will be asked. If so, be prepared. Prepare an answer in advance, so you are convincing and clear in your response. I often include additional slides at the end of my PowerPoint file (after the final slide of my talk) just in case I get asked certain questions. They don’t get used every time, but it’s good to have them there for when they are needed.

Preparing questions will, hopefully, reduce the risk that you’ll get rattled during question time. Try to stay calm and measured in your responses, no matter what happens. Take your time if you need to.

What if you find yourself in exactly the situation you’ve been dreading, and a questioner finds a serious error in your analysis? I haven’t had that when I was speaking, but I’ve been in the room when one of my co-authors was speaking and facing this challenge, so I was partly in the hot seat too. I could see he needed rescuing, so I jumped in and said it was an excellent point, and we would have to revise the model and re-do the analysis. This is the only thing you can do really. Definitely don’t bluff. It’s not as bad in reality as you might expect. The audience tends to accept that mistakes happen. They are likely to keep asking further questions, despite the error. Self-deprecating humour can be effective in this situation, if you can manage it.

What if someone claims to find an important error in the middle of your talk? If they are right, it may be that the rest of your results are wrong. If you are sure that you can deal with the issue convincingly without taking up much time, do so. In all other situations, my suggested strategy is to thank them for their advice, and suggest that you re-visit the issue during question time. Usually, seminars and conference presentations are on a tight time schedule, and you don’t want to lose half your time in an argument. Even if they are right, it is probably best not to just abandon your prepared talk (except in extreme cases). Rather, have a discussion in question time about the implications of their point.

What if you get a really aggressive questioner? After one talk to a large conference audience, I had a guy (a university academic) absolutely let rip at me with abuse and contempt. He was passionate, to say the least. In this situation, you’ve got one big thing on your side: most of the audience feels almost as uncomfortable as you do. When I smiled and thanked Dr Angry for his question, quite a few people laughed, which helped me a lot. Fortunately, I knew he was talking rubbish, and I was able to refute his points in what I hoped was a cool, calm way. I was trying to pretend I was cool and calm, anyway. It certainly would not have been a good idea for me to respond aggressively – the calmer the better. Even if he had been right in his comments, the same advice holds – try not to look rattled, and respond calmly. Maybe a good strategy would be to say, “I’d be happy to talk about it afterwards, if we can do so civilly”. That makes you look reasonable, and includes a bit of a put-down of the questioner (which you might find satisfying).

One of the things I find most difficult to deal with is when someone asks an absolutely ridiculous question or one that reflects a strong ideological position or some whacky new-age belief (more common in a public forum rather than an academic or professional meeting, although you never know!). The question deserves a response something like “You idiot!!”, but you have to respond respectfully. Sometimes a decent response would require much too long, because you would have to start by addressing the foundations of their misguided beliefs. Sometimes you just don’t know where to begin. How should one respond? Remember there is no way you’ll change their beliefs. Really, your aim should be to get off that topic as quickly as possible and onto the next question. Maybe say you don’t know the answer. Maybe say that’s an interesting question that you’ll need to give more thought to. Maybe answer a different question. Maybe say you’ll have to agree to differ about the assumption that underpins their question. Definitely don’t ask them to talk to you afterwards!

Sometimes an apparently dumb question reveals that you actually haven’t explained something properly. Assume that the fault is yours (poor communication) rather than theirs (poor understanding). Try to re-state and clarify the point of misunderstanding. Sometimes this requires some interaction with the questioner to identify the exact point of confusion.

Finally, a risk to guard against is that you might relax at the end of your main presentation, and give a flippant answer to a question, such that you open up a can of worms. Remember that the presentation doesn’t end until the questions are over.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia


Thanks to Michael Burton for the idea for this PD, and to Michael, Ben White and Fiona Gibson for ideas for content.

Further Reading

Pannell, D.J. (2009). PowerPoint Tips, Pannell Discussion No. 147, here.