Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Monday, November 27, 2006

How to Answer Conference Questions

I received two comments on the last post from Amelie and Anonymous about how to field questions at conference presentations.

I wish I had a better answer and invite other conference presenters to jump in with their experiences, but here is my crack at it.

What to do when someone asks a valid question and you don't know the answer.

My advisor always told me the first thing to do is flatter the questioner. Something like "Great question." From there it is important to tell the truth. If you try to fake your way through an answer you will lose credibility. It is much better to tell the truth, most people understand that you are a student and you aren't expected to know everything.If you truly have no idea you can say things like
(a) "we hadn't thought of that before. I would love to talk with you after."
(b) "these are preliminary data, that is something we plan to look into in the future"
(c) "I'm not sure I understand your question, can we talk about it after the session."

What to do when the questioner asks a disinterested, self-flattering question. i.e. What about my work or the work of my buddy Dr. X
Again you can't go wrong with flattering the questioner, even if it is through gritted teeth.
(a) If you have enough knowledge you can try to explain why so and so's work is not related or only tangentially related to your own while of course lauding so and so. For example, "I am very familiar with the work of Dr. X on topic A. Dr. X's discovery of important point Y and Z have been pivotal in the field of A. However , most of my work is focused on topic B, which is only cursorly related to topic A through relationship Z. Therefore Dr. X's work, while brillant, has not impacted my field strongly."
(b)If you don't have enough knowledge to explain the differences between your work and Dr. X you have to handle the situation more delicately. "I am not that familiar with Dr. X's work. It sounds like Dr. X is working on topic A. I am working on topic B, which I believe is related through relationship Z, and therefore haven't come across this concept before in my reading. However, I am always interested in new approaches and ideas. Could you please tell me more about topic A after the session?"

What to do when the questioner asks a completely stupid question.
So you just spent the last 30 minutes intricately proving that leaves are green and the questioner says, "well obviously leaves are blue." [Actually happened to my sister, well not leaves are blue but you get the idea.] How do you respond to this? One approach [and what my sister did] is to say "you need to familiarize yourself with the work of Dr. A and Dr.B who showed that leaves are green. If you talk to me after the session I can recommend some of their papers for you." Another approach: "perhaps you had trouble understanding my talk. I'm sorry. If you meet with me after the session I would be happy to go over my data showing leaves are green with you."

What to do when the questioner is hostile or just plain rude.
At one conference I actually saw a questioner get up and tell the presenter that their work was not of the quality that belonged in the conference and that they needed to go back to their supervisor and tell them that they shouldn't be sending them to a conference with so little and low quality data. Kicker was the questioner didn't read the abstract well enough to notice that the talk only had one presenter so it had to be the PI. Gotta love that. So what would you do? Besides run to the bathroom and cry. Well in this case the session chair jumped in and said wow we're running late time to move to the next talk. Thank you session chair. But if you find yourself in a similarly unfortunate situation with no help from session chair...please remember that the questioner is embarrassing themselves by saying this in public. If you respond with equal hostility, you will carry that embarrassment to yourself. The best approach is to be as polite as possible and shut down conversation quickly. "I'm sorry that you feel that way. Perhaps you didn't understand my data, let's talk about it after the session." I guess if you really couldn't hold it back you might add "Wow that was rude!" but I would recommend against it. Everyone else knows this already and the person has done more to discredit themselves simply by making the statement than anything you say ever would.

Hope this helps..and I'm very interested in how you handle questions and any conference horror stories you might have.


At 5:39 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! The worst question I ever got was probably a valid an good one, however, it was asked very rapidly in a strong accent and I virtually didn't undrstand a word of it. I know I should just have answered anything, perhaps repeating my conclusions. At the moment, I just answered :Sorry, I didn't understand you...' Which got my a hearty laugh from the whole audience (including the person asking the question), because apparently nobody had understood it and he himself was used to that. So: Not a good answer, but didn't lead to a catastrophy.

In a similar situation, I heard a presenter answer "That was a comment, right?" to get out of answering the question.

At 5:07 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a non-native english speaker, "Sorry, I didn't understand" is one of my favorite ways out. And please, remember; do speak slowly especially if your native language _is_ english!


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