Making your research accessible

How to conquer the conference

By 31 July 2013

Presenting a paper at a conference, or being a discussant at a workshop round table can be stressful, but preparation, structure, sensible design and good content will always see you through. But for many researchers, the Question and Answer session that comes at the end of a presentation takes them into treacherous waters because they do not know what’s coming.

This How To Note presents a handful of tactics that are useful in managing such sessions, and minimising their risk. It aims to anticipate the worst that can go wrong, and suggest strategies to deal with each one.

1. You forget everything and go blank

  • Take a deep breath – oxygen helps!
  • Be honest about what’s happening: rare is the audience who will not give you a bit of slack if you say “Forgive me, I have suddenly gone blank: can I come back to that question please?” Just make sure that you do – and don’t do this more than once in any Q+A or it will start to look like an excuse!
  • Use humour to deflect the stress

2. Questions come rapid-fire one after another, making it feel like the Spanish Inquisition

  • Ask the chair to take up to three questions at a time before you answer them. This buys you some time to develop your answers, and allows you to take them in the order of your choice (perhaps easiest to hardest so that you provide strong answers up front, and leave the weaker and less satisfying answers to last; or hardest first to get them over with!) It also gives you the option to not fully answer any particularly tricky or political or mischievous questions

3. The technology doesn’t work

  • Make sure you test everything beforehand
  • Prepare a Plan B (e.g. speaking without slides for first
  •  Make friends with one of the technologists/IT people in advance – having a ‘Points Man/Woman’ who will deal with it might save you if things go wrong

4. You are asked an impossible question to which you do not know the answer

  • Acknowledge that you do not have a quick answer. Try to provide a small fact, opinion or insight that partially addresses the question, and ask for the questioner to seek you out after the session to discuss it further
  •  If you cannot even start to answer, be honest, and say so. Acknowledge that it’s a difficult question (and say you wished you could answer it?)
  • Suggest someone else you know in the audience or a specialist in a relevant field who the questioner may want to ask the same question

5. A member of the audience uses the Q+A to deliver their opinion on a range of issues, but doesn’t actually get around to asking a direct question

  • Don’t say bluntly that the person failed to actually ask a question! Everyone else will already know this and you will not make any friends by embarrassing them
  • Pick up on one aspect of what they have said and offer your own opinion/an insight from your research that confirms, challenges, or adds depth to their comment

6. You run out of time

  • DON’T! (practice practice practice) and don’t get side-tracked
  • Ask for a two minute warning and prepare a wrap-up lasting 2 minute
  • You are challenged/found to be factually incorrect
  • Revert to your research, drawing any additional facts that might verify or validate your original conclusions, or expand on the methodology used to generate your findings
  • Buy time and space by saying you’d like to pursue the issue with the questioner after the session has finished. Invite them to come and find you!