You do great work. You have beautiful slides. You’re giving a brilliant, clear description. You exude confidence.
And then someone asks you a question. How you respond has a profound impact on how your audience will view you and your work.
The great orators respond with ease and a cool, confident manner. The inquirer is left satisfied, feeling as though s/he has raised an excellent point and contributed to the scientific discussion. These orators are like great quarterbacks, thinking on their feet, buying time when they need to, wooing the crowd with the graceful arc that lands the first down or touchdown.
Others don’t respond so well. They come across as though you’ve just threatened to kill their firstborn. They become defensive, locked in a struggle with the inquirer, losing momentum and the ability to effectively control the direction of the discourse. They are more like the blockers on the offensive, aiming to protect their quarterback by brawn, stopping the blitz by brute force.
These are rather hyperbolic descriptions, but the two ends of the spectrum exist: confident to defensive. It may be an inaccurate generalization, but it seems that more than any other group, many young female scientists take the latter approach. It’s something that I have noticed myself do on occasion.
Responding defensively makes us look guilty, so to speak–as though we’re trying to pass off data that we know is shoddy or incomplete, or that we don’t know the topic as well as we should. Often this isn’t actually the case; we know the data, the literature, the models, but there’s something that keys us up for a fight. Maybe it’s simply nervousness, that little shot of adrenaline before we put our work out there for people to critique. Perhaps we think the data–and thus our work and its quality–should speak for itself, and in asking about the data or its interpretation, we feel that our personal scientific merit is being questioned. Or it could be a case of impostor syndrome, a sense that we really do not and never can know as much as we should.
Regardless of our reasons, we need to realize when we respond in this manner and adjust accordingly. We have to learn to take a breath, gather our thoughts, and reply with a clear, concise, and confident answer. We’ll have an easier time convincing people that we know what we’re talking about not when we beat them senseless with information, but when we sound like we believe the answer we’re giving.