answering audience questions at conferences

As it is now conference season in Europe it seemed appropriate to focus on one of the things that less experienced presenters worry about – what to do if there are tricky questions to answer from the audience.

 By and large educational research audiences are well behaved and supportive. They do not see the value in questioning-as-a-blood-sport. They also understand that conferences are often places where academics put out their work for the first time, try things out to see how they run. Equally often, the conference is the place to showcase a big and very completed piece of work: the conference acts as a process of dissemination, rather than as trying something out. Both things are equally valid. Both options have the conference paper as an opportunity to engage in conversation with an audience who have chosen to be there.

 So the conference paper is a chance for a dialogue. It’s not a test or a viva. It’s also the time and place to perform as a scholar, even if you don’t really feel like one yet.

 You might of course be in a session where people have chosen to hear someone else more well known. That’s fine – it’s still a good place to try out what you have to say and to perhaps surprise people with something interesting that they didn’t expect to hear. You’re a bonus. In reality some of the more interesting research that is presented at conferences comes from doctoral and early career researchers who have spent three or four years of their lives thinking and reading about something which has to be designed as a contribution to knowledge.

 Be reassured that the vast majority of people who ask questions do so out of genuine interest. They want more information, they want to alert you to something relevant you may not know about. This is all helpful and if someone offers a new piece of information then thank them. If they ask something you actually don’t know the answer to, then don’t try to cobble something together. You don’t have to have an immediate answer to everything. It’s OK to say that you hadn’t considered that and that you will think about it further. If you do know the answer then say it as succinctly as you can – and it’s fine to take a moment or two to compose what you will say.

 There may of course be the odd experienced researcher who will decide that the discussion time allowed after questions is time to give you a bit of free supervision – this can be really irritating. The best thing to do here is to smile and say thankyou rather than to engage with this kind of paternalistic behaviour. You can rest assured that others in the audience will see what is going on and be as ticked off as you are. Of course if you do have a smart answer handy then you can say it – but this may be an invitation to a dialogue rather than a conversation which includes everyone there.

 The prolonged two-person interaction is to be avoided if at all possible because it is really boring for everyone else. If you find yourself in one, then suggest that you might stop and continue it afterwards and that other people also need a chance to speak.

 Very occasionally you DO get someone who is rude. In these situations you just have to stay polite, thank them for their contribution and just let them make a complete idiot of themselves. Someone else in the audience may well come to your rescue and you can always of course invite audience input by simply asking what others think of what is being (rudely) said. (And afterwards imagine hanging them up by their toes… )

 The most disappointing thing is actually to get NO feedback and no questions to speak of. if this happens then remember that this will clearly either be because your presentation has been so stunning that no-one has anything to say, or that the audience is too behind the times to engage!!!

 And finally, the best thing to do is rehearse what you are going to say in the presentation and have some good slides and a handout, so that you know you have done the best job you can. You could get your friends to come to smile and nod.  You could get a reserve question sorted out with one of them, one that you know that you can answer – get them to ask it first so that you can start off on familar turf.

 You might even ask a supervisor or mentor to come and mind your back. We’ll definitely do that if you want us to.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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1 Response to answering audience questions at conferences

  1. M-H says:

    I think this is excellent advice. The thing I find hard is when someone rises ponderously to their feet, and proceeds to give a short lecture about something only tangentially related to your topic. But I’ve been to enough conferences now to know (as you suggest) that this person is usually showing themselves up, and the rest of the audience is as irritated as you are perplexed.

    And, yes, it’s awful to get no feedback at all! Participants in my project (all PhD students) agreed that it was the second most devastating thing to happen in your first presentation (the worst was that no-one attended). Although sometimes people who liked your presentation will come up to you afterward and say so; that’s a nice thing to happen if there’s no audience response. At least you can then believe that you were so good that no-one had anything to add rather than the opposite – that you were so awful that no-one knew how to be kind!


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