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Thursday, March 10, 2011

How to Present and Answer Questions at Conferences and Colloquia

My thanks to all those who commented here and here on my last post, "How to Ask Questions At Conferences and Colloquia."  I was asked if I had any thoughts about presenting a talk and answering questions.  Here are five (possibly obvious) tips:

(1) Seek first to understand, then to be understood: I gave this suggestion to those asking questions, and it was very well-received.  The same principle applies to those answering questions.  You cannot give a good response to a question unless you understand it.  If the question is well-put, you needn't restate it.  But often, the speaker has more familiarity with his topic than the questioner and can clarify a rambling or muddled question.  In such cases, it is frequently helpful to say, "You are asking me X.  Here is why the concern you are expressing is valid/invalid/irrelevant/etc."  If the questioner criticized some aspect of the paper, try to state the criticism even more clearly and persuasively than did the original questioner.

(2) Stick within the time guidelines: If your initial presentation is supposed to be 20 minutes long, be sure to finish no later than 20 minutes after you begin.  I can't believe how many talks I have seen where a speaker spends 50 minutes giving a paper synopsis that was supposed to take approximately 20 minutes.  Similarly, moderators should be sure to end a Q&A period no later than the scheduled time period.  People may love a one-hour talk for the first 60 minutes but practically explode in rage when it hits the 63 minute mark.  Obviously, informal conversation can continue after the talk ends.

(3) Don't assume everyone has read the paper: In my last post, many people expressed their frustration over colleagues who ask questions without having read the paper being presented.  I'm sympathetic to those concerns.  If their failure to read the paper is obvious to those who read it, it's quite possible that they are asking poor questions.  Some schools have so many speakers visit, though, that it is impractical to read the paper of everyone who comes to present.   Perhaps non-readers should skip those talks or at least not ask questions unless the queue is empty. 

On the other hand, just as scholarly interchange can take place in short blog posts, perhaps meaningful scholarly interchange can occur in a twenty-minute oral presentation.  In my view, the merit of some piece of scholarship (be it an article, book, presentation, or blog post) largely depends on how interesting the ideas are per unit time I must spend to digest the piece of scholarship.  On that score, brief presentations can potentially score well.  (Incidentally, ideas can be interesting for many different reasons, including their creativity, analytical rigor, empirical support, and so on.)

The real problem may be that norms about paper reading are ill-defined.  If your institution has a clearly-defined norm, then follow it.  Norms are arguably ambiguous, however, when talks begin with a twenty-minute synopsis.  Why have the synopsis if you're expected to read the paper? (Indeed, in some contexts, introductions are deemed unnecessary and eliminated).  If you want to create a norm of paper-reading, then I suggest actively reinforcing the norm by announcing it or at least announcing that those who haven't read the paper should ask questions last.  

(4) Take notes on multi-part questions: If you receive a two- or three-part question, try to take brief notes so you remember the different parts.  Doing so is more impressive and time-efficient than asking to have a question repeated.  Perhaps multi-part questions should be out of bounds.  But until that day, you may as well answer them smoothly.

(5) Don't give a half-baked presentation: There are indeed "half-baked" workshops designed for projects that are truly unfinished works-in-progress.  But don't take the "half-baked" moniker too seriously.  There is something to be said for scholarly interchange while an idea is being developed, but don't embarass yourself.  You can always bat around truly half-baked ideas with a small number of colleagues over lunch or email before presenting to a larger audience.  In #3, I said that the test of a piece of scholarship largely depends on how interesting its ideas are per unit time it takes to digest those ideas.  Unless you expect to give audience members a pretty good return on their time investment, keep baking.

Posted by Adam Kolber on March 10, 2011 at 02:58 PM | Permalink

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