On the Spot: Tips for Successfully Handling the Q&A

Brian Taylor

September 08, 2011

The trials of the question-and-answer period: You (and we) know them all too well. Just as you've found your groove in your conference presentation, job talk, or internal departmental forum, it's time to end it and take questions from the audience. You never know quite what to expect. You may have overpracticed in an attempt to settle your nerves, or underprepared because you finished your presentation just moments before you gave it.

Answering questions after a presentation provides an opportunity to demonstrate one's knowledge, unscripted. Done well, an academic can make a name for herself and create a lasting impression on peers, colleagues, future students, and employers. But a presenter must think quickly on her feet and be both open to criticism and suggestions, yet firm and confident about the contribution to the field that her research offers. Fairly or not, the Q&A session is often what attendees talk about most, and presenters reflect on the most, after a conference session or meeting.

So we can all agree that the Q&A can make or break a presentation. It's best to be prepared, know in advance what (and who) might be coming, and consider the audience. In that spirit, we've categorized several common types of questioners in hope of helping you prepare for your next presentation.

The Praisers. These benign audience members will compliment your research and often enjoy presenting focused elaborations on some aspect of your presentation. It's best to gratefully acknowledge a Praiser's input, and use his question (if indeed he even asks one) as a platform to further elaborate on your research.

The Tangentialists. These conference-goers, familiar to us all, have quite a bit to say; however, it is usually only peripherally related to your research. And, like Praisers, Tangentialists often prefer to pontificate rather than ask questions. Your challenge is to acknowledge what they're saying without brushing them off or letting them derail the conversation or take the focus off your research. In most disciplines, interrupting a question asker is considered a faux pas, so you must nod politely until they are (finally) done. But it is equally important to not let them interrupt you while you're responding, in order to prevent another long exchange or, worse, the appearance that you've lost control.

The Interrupters. If someone in the audience repeatedly interrupts your talk, politely ask them to hold their questions until you're done, and indicate that you may touch upon their point in the process. A caveat: In some disciplines (for example, economics), interruptions during the presentation are the norm rather than the exception, and presenters are expected to answer—sometimes at length—questions as they come up. Such interruptions are not necessarily intended negatively (and can, in fact, indicate extreme interest), but nonetheless, allowing one audience member to monopolize the conversation can distract you and your audience. Stand your ground: Wait for the speaker to pause, then politely and firmly interrupt by responding to his or her most relevant question. Conclude by asking, "Have I addressed your question?" If all else fails and they continue interrupting, try suggesting that the two of you meet later for a one-on-one conversation in order to allow time for others to ask questions.

The Piggybackers. Piggybackers intervene as soon as someone else finishes a question, but before you've had a chance to answer. When responding to Piggybackers' questions, it's best to deal with both the original question and the follow-up version. Make eye contact with each questioner in turn.

The Technicalists. Technicalists are highly focused on a particular piece of your research, usually a methodological issue or theoretical approach. They are often content with a thoughtful response, whether they agree with your approach or not, but occasionally they will be interested in a debate. Technicalists may be the most intimidating type of audience member, but, thankfully, preparation to handle their questions is straightforward. Of course, no one can anticipate every methodological or theoretical concern, but that's OK: The goal of presentations is to learn from others what the holes in your research are, and receive constructive feedback to fill them. Still, knowing your area, data, and topic cold are essential. Many presenters find it helpful to have additional materials—extra slides, tables, graphics, handouts—that they can refer to for such questions.

And, last but not least:

The Curveballers. While the above are often benign, and sometimes even helpful, there are, unfortunately, some members of the audience who will actively seek to trip you up, fluster you, and make you appear ill prepared. Their goal is sometimes malicious, but often—especially during job talks—they throw curveballs to assess how you function under pressure. The best approach is an assertive but earnest response. Stick to what you know, elaborate on what you can, and smile to avoid appearing defensive or otherwise unnerved. If you do not know the answer, you can indicate that you are happy to look into it. In addition, in some disciplines and under some circumstances, it's acceptable to turn the tables: Ask the questioner how she would deal with the issue she raised.

Fortunately, most people asking questions at your presentation are simply seeking information or elaboration, so it's best to approach the Q&A as an honest effort at intellectual exchange. By approaching sessions in this spirit, you are less likely to get defensive or hostile, and more likely to gain some helpful insight on how your research has been received, interpreted, and digested by your peers.

A few more words to the wise: You might be tempted to be more dismissive of a young-looking audience member who asks a long-winded question (perhaps assuming him to be a graduate student) than a full professor who is well known in your field.

Resist the temptation.

You could be wrong and end up alienating someone who is potentially important for your future career, and you might well make a bad impression on the audience for being dismissive based on perceived status.

Finally, familiarize yourself with the conventions of various discussion formats within your discipline. Ask senior colleagues for their input and advice (but expect some conflicting advice).

In the end, there are no magic bullets or codified methods for dealing with the Q&A, so just be prepared and respectful, and practice, practice, practice. Make your presentation clear and focused, and approach every Q&A as an opportunity to cultivate some aplomb, combining both assertiveness and humility. Above all, never lose your cool.

Shiri Noy and Kathleen C. Oberlin are Ph.D. candidates in sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington.