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.
Sometimes I see more of the newbies respond this way, but a seasoned grad student or postdoc who has a few presentations under their belt should be answering queries with some sort of poise and grace.
It is something that should get better with experience. But I’ve also seen some folks who don’t realize they’re even doing it and so never stop. In fact, this post was in part inspired by a recent seminar given by a young PI.
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This part resonated with me and how I was sometimes during presentations
“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.”
PhD mentor was always talking about it looked wonderful when I was exuding confidence, seemed poised but not cocky, etc. And it takes time. No only do we need to know our material and background info, but much like you said, we need to become aware and adjust so that not just the powerpoint, our clothes and our data look great, but out attitude carries over and shows in everything we do. Ex boss used to say that the key was practice, practice, practice … so I think practice does help to overcome any defensiveness or “attitude” we project.
My academia mantra “Fake it ’til you make it”. I have to repeat this over and over before I give a talk. 🙂
Totally agree that some people really blow it by getting defensive. It’s suicide during an interview…who’d want to work alongside such a person?
That said, some questioners can be dicks. The key is to remain calm, control the pace of the discussion. If you want payback, give the dick as much rope as possible to hang himself (but you’d better be sure you’re right).
While practice is great, younger presenters need to be careful about too much practice. I have seen many robotic preentations from grad students at ACS meetings, and these are always woeful.
Paul, you’re completely right saying that some people can be dicks when asking questions. But some presenters take everything personally, as Cath points out below, and it can take some experience to learn who’s really a dick and who’s just asking. This is why my default is to assume it’s nothing personal and try to respond calmly and clearly.
As for practice, I completely concur. And I think some overestimate the value of practice, particularly when it comes to responding to questions. In front of your lab mates and friends, you have an added confidence that tends to dissipate when you’re doing for real.
I was always terrified of the questions – you have full control over the content of your talks, but the questions can really fly at you from left field! “Fake it ’til you make it” definitely worked for me.
I used to have a real problem with defensiveness about written edits, too. (I still do, but much less!) I’d take them really personally, but when I calmed down I’d always realise that most changes were improvements on what I’d written. I still feel defensive sometimes, but I’ve learned to thank the person for their edits and go away and stew in private for a while before reflecting more calmly on what edits should and should not be incorporated!
Great post. Nicely written. Learning to avoid defensive reactions to criticism is a key skill that all female (and male) speakers should develop.
If you haven’t seen it, I wrote a post about how I handle aggressive questions on my blog: http://womeninwetlands.blogspot.com/2010/07/how-to-deal-with-aggressive-questions.html
Having a strategy is helpful in quelling fears about answering questions from the audience.
Hi, DrDoyenne! Thanks for reminding me of that post! I think it’s very important for young scienstists to have a strategy for dealing with questions and different tones from the audience.
Great post. It’s always good to see this advice reiterated. I think that practice really helps for young academics, let alone young academics – I’m not an scientist but I’d totally agree with the advice. Practice, practice, practice since its practice that makes perfect.
I think that practice makes one realise when they’re on the verge of becoming defensive since that’s suicide during an interview or even just an academic debate. Yes, why would someone else want to work alongside such a person? I was also trained that if someone became defensive that you should start to question their entire intellectual stance since it might be flawed.
Yes, some questioners/academics/interviewers might be frustrating but that doesn’t matter. The key to the entire process to remain calm and keep control of the pace and the discussion at hand. As said above, it’s always better to give as much rope to the annoying person let them hang themselves.
Really enjoyed this post and all these comments!
There is one rather consistent attribute I have observed during all the seminars I have attended during my 3 years of graduate school so far. Teaching is the quite possibly the best, yet most under-appreciated practice tool for researchers. I have noticed that the students (and faculty) who actually value teaching, who take TAing seriously and passionately is positively correlated to the quality of the talk. I have friends and peers who believe TAing is complete waste of time, after all, they didn’t choose graduate school so they could TA. However, this attitude prevents them from obtaining pertinent skills that they would learn if they valued teaching. Teaching well means to effectively articulate complicated mechanisms to students who (rarely) have prior understanding of these mechanisms. Also, students ask some very good questions that puts you, the teacher, on the spot which forces you to stay on your toes and keep a well-rounded understanding of the subject so that you can answer their questions or at least point them to the right direction. Moreover, the more teaching you do, the more confident you become as a public speaker. Importantly, similar to teaching you can’t always assume the audience is familiar with your subject, so you learn to make your subject more appealing and interesting so that everyone can relate to it. I think that the same skills can be applied to giving a seminar talk on your own research. Perhaps graduate programs should explain this to incoming graduate students to enhance not only the undergraduate education at the university, but also the quality of the student research seminars.
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