Handling Questions

Your presentation doesn't end once you've finished what you have to say. The question period often is the part of the talk which influences the audience the most. After all, you've had time to practice the rest of the talk. This is the part of the presentation where your ability to interact with the audience will be evaluated. Since you can't always predict the what you'll be asked, how can you prepare for the questioning? Here are a few guidelines:

  1. Always repeat each question so the entire audience knows what you've been asked.
  2. Before you answer, take a moment to reflect on the question. By not rushing to give an answer, you show a degree of respect for the questioner, and you give yourself time to be sure you are answering the question that actually was asked. If you are unsure, restate the question or ask for a clarification.
  3. Above all, wait for the questioner to finish asking the question before you begin your answer! The only exception is when it becomes necessary to break in on a vague, rambling question; this is your show, and you have only a limited time to make your presentation. It is essential, however, that you break in tactfully. Say something like "So, are you asking ....?" This will focus the question and give you a place to begin an answer. Remember that your ability to interact with an audience also is being evaluated.
  4. If a question is asked during the talk, and it will clarify an ambiguity, answer it immediately.
  5. Postpone questions aimed at resolving specific problems (or arcane knowledge) until the end of the talk, or private discussion. This is particularly important if the answer will distract either you or the audience away from the flow of your presentation.
  6. Avoid prolonged discussions with one person, extended answers, and especially arguments.
  7. If you can't answer a question, just say so. Don't apologize. You then may:
  8. Finish your answer by asking the person who asked that question whether or not you answered the question sufficiently for them. This acknowledges and thanks the questioner, it lets the rest of the audience feel comfortable asking questions (because it shows you are genuinely interested in addressing audience issues, not just in lecturing to them), and it gives you a chance to more fully answer the question if your first effort was not quite on target. If the questioner says you didn't answer it and you believe you did, either ask them to clarity the question or suggest that the two of you go into more detail at a break or after the presentation. (My thanks to Dr. Bruce Bloom for this very astute suggestion!).

The following information may be presented elsewhere in these tutorials, but are worth considering again here!

The Question & Answer slide.
This is the slide that follows your conclusions and remains in the background as you answer questions from the audience. A very good idea is to carefully select the most important images from your prior slides, shrink them so they all fit on this slide, then arrange them so that they are up for the audience to see as they Q & A session goes on. This will allow them to consider your data and interpretations without having to recall details, it gives them a chance to reconsider the information after you've delivered the 'big question' answer, and it helps you to guide the content of the Q&A session to meet your own ends.


The Acknowledgements slide.
This is an important slide! No one works in a vacumn, nor are many scientists sufficiently wealthy to fund their own research without outside sources! On the other hand, avoid reading a list of names and agencies as this:

But, as I said, this is important - particularly if a collaborator's best friend is sitting in the audience! Consider using a collage of photos of your collaborators in their natural settings for this purpose. You may still point out the primary collaborators, but a visual approach is inherently more interesting for the audience. Moreover, at a crowded conference a collaborator is more likely to be recognized in the hallway or at a restaurant if your audience has seen his or her photo during your talk. You should consider carefully the content of the photo, however, if you are presenting it in a professional setting!

Finally, consider presenting the acknowledgement slide at the front end of the talk. You'll need to restrain yourself so you don't spend too much time on this slide, but that seldom is a problem at the beginning of a talk. This is better than not being able to present the information at all if the slide is at the end of the talk and you've run out of time....

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Jeff Radel