Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Self-Defense Talks

No, this post is not about the use of illegible fonts, invisible or clashing color schemes, text-filled slides, excessive animations, or even attempts at humor involving anatomical references that some of the men in the audience think are funny but most of the women do not (proving that women have no sense of humor). In the past 8 months, I have been in the audience of two different talks that attempted the latter, and many more that utilized the other design options.

But let's ignore those issues for now. This post concerns one specific aspect of how we answer questions after a talk: defensive question-answering.

Most of us have seen examples of defensive question-answering (or non-answering), but I saw a new variant on it in a recent talk. More than once, when the speaker was asked if he had done X or Y or thought about Z, he replied:

If I'd done/thought of that, I would have mentioned it.

That is a bad answer because it is a non-answer that will impress no one. Some people will assume you don't know the answer, and therefore possibly that your approach is narrow and/or you are not a careful researcher or deep thinker.

Perhaps those inferences are too harsh, based on what might have just been a throwaway line, but I couldn't think of a good reason for the repeated refusal of the speaker to answer thoughtful and polite questions by people seeking to better understand his research methods and results.

Why not answer the questions politely and sincerely, even if you think they are stupid? You could say something like "No, we haven't done that because..". You could even say "No, that won't work because.. [explain]". Be professional, be mature, and toss the question back with some information attached to it if at all possible.

I think these defensive answers would be unimpressive no matter how great the experience or fame of the speaker, but I thought it particularly unwise for an assistant professor to give these non-answers instead of attempting a thoughtful or at least more complete answer. If you are trying to build your reputation, build it from substance, not swaggering remarks.

Even if a question is an aggressive attempt to undermine you or show that your research is incomplete, there are numerous thoughtful and suave ways to answer questions of this sort. Last year, I saw a young professor parry the very aggressive and obnoxious comments of a Big Professor after the young professor's talk at an international meeting. It was impressive. The YP was very calm and polite as he responded to the Big Professor's hostile comments, showing that he (the YP) was right and the BP was wrong. The audience gave the YP a huge round of applause after the questions were over, and many people considered the exchange the highlight of the meeting, in part because of the cool and professional way that the YP dealt with the situation.

If you really have absolutely no idea how to answer a question, you could at least say "No, I haven't done/thought of that. I/we first tried [mention what you've done] because.. etc.". Perhaps you will be repeating what you already said in your talk, but that's OK -- you can turn the question back to what you have done and why you did it, perhaps clarifying the motivation, methods, and results of your research.

You don't have to give a brilliant answer to every question, but a serious answer with substance is preferable to an aggressive non-answer.


DodgyBlot said...

Interesting. The question-asking at the end of talks is a bit of a charade, isn't it? The questioner asks "have you tried X?". Occasionally you get an answer "we tried X - it doesn't work" but most of the time the speaker hasn't tried X. And yes, they would have mentioned it if they had tried it. Being self-defensive is a bit silly... it's just a game, where the questioner really is saying "you should do X" or just asking something out of courtesy and as a speaker all you have to do is play along and be pleasant back, but most importantly, not look/sound like a chump!

PLW said...

I'm with FSP, here. Frequently when you present results, there are lots of related things that you either

1) tried, and they didn't work
2) thought about trying, but didn't for reason X
3) Have tried successfully in some other work
4) Are in the middle of trying for some follow-on work.

And if you haven't thought of the presented idea, it might even become a #4. Those questions seem perfectly legit to me, and I would judge anyone responding so rudely to them quite poorly.

Pretty Mad Scientist said...

The last time I gave a talk a senior colleague made a comment (during my talk, not in the question-asking part) along the lines of "I know what you mean by that but maybe you can go into more detail for others in the audience." One the one hand I appreciated the comment for pointing out something I maybe should have spent more time on. On the other hand I figure that if someone in the audience did have a question about the topic, they probably would have asked on their own. Moreover, the comment felt patronizing. When I'm interrupted during a talk like this or asked a hostile question, I try to be polite and give as much information as possible, like you said. I think that by being defensive or argumentative, especially as a young scientist, I would be undermining myself.

Anonymous said...

The young idiot was saying that his talk contained everything he knew or had ever done. If true, it is really a damning statement about how little he has done.

Questions can have many purposes, but it is best to answer honestly. Sometimes a short answer is best: "No, we didn't try that. I'll have to think about whether it is worth the effort." Using a question that doesn't deserve a long answer as a segue to repeat your talk is impolite to the rest of the audience, who may have real questions to ask.

Susan B. Anthony said...

It often seems to me that the "Have you tried X?" question is an attempt by the questioner to relate the topic of the talk to his/her own research interests. (Maybe especially in a job talk, where everyone is trying to gauge the "fit" of the speaker with the department.) Another reason why brushing off the question is a bad idea! My standard response is something like "Hmm, that's an interesting idea. I would think... [whatever relevant information I can come up with off the top of my head]. But that's something I will definitely look into/try in the future."

I think one of the best defensive question-answering techniques a speaker has at his/her disposal is the ability to defer a question until afterward. I try to stress this to my students. Of course it can be very impressive if you successfully and skilfully answer all questions put to you, as in FSP's example. But I think it also demonstrates a good sense of the reach of your work (not to mention respect for your audience) if you know when a line of questioning is becoming unproductive for most of the people in the room and can politely head off the questioner by suggesting that you and he/she pursue it more privately at a later time.

Anonymous said...

"even attempts at humor involving anatomical references that some of the men in the audience think are funny but most of the women do not (proving that women have no sense of humor)."

LOL, I really have never experienced this and am now very curious what sort of joke this was! Please provide more detail in a later blog post.

That reminds me of a prof I had my first year who made jokes during lecture AND made fun of students when they asked questions in class. The males thought he was funny but I thought he was a jerk and an ineffective teacher...I don't need a degree in Ed. to know making fun of students when they ask questions is probably not going to help them learn. But maybe the problem is that I just don't have a good sense of humor, since you need a Y-chromosome and more testosterone to realize how funny it is to get made fun of (in front of your 90% male classmates) when you are trying to learn and understand. Silly me.

That is a weird way to answer a question though.

GMP said...

What about the question, which is clearly used to undermine:
"But all you did was all actually done (and better!) in 1963 by Famous Scientist in Obscure Journal." You know of that work, and it has very little to do with your work. The question is not of substance, but most of the rest of the audience does not know that, as mentioning of Famous Scientist gives it lots of gravitas. It is a clear attack and you must defend your work but also make it clear that the attacker absolutely has no point; question/answer session is often not about information (if you want info, you can ask afterward the talk) but about showing who's boss/ego face off. My PhD advisor advocated to respond to aggression with aggression. If someone clearly tries to put you down, you have to show some teeth.

LawrenceOfAcademia said...

In my experience, post-talk Q&A is the hardest skill for Ph.D. students to master.

Just as in teaching, often I find it useful to start an answer by repeating the question. It communicates a certain level of respect to the questioner. It's appreciated by audience members who did not hear the question. It creates some space to think. It gives the impression of not avoiding the question. Finally, by pithily restating a long-winded question, or by elaborating on a very pointed one, you can illustrate an understanding of the issue, even if the answer that follows isn't brilliant (e.g., "we need more work in that area", "huh, now why didn't I think of that").

The Lesser Half said...

you forgot the part of the story where the next paper or proposal by YP gets destroyed by BP, beginning a career-long vendetta carried out first by BP, and then by his academic offspring.

Anonymous said...

Suggestions from an oral communication class I took for answering difficult questions:

1) Repeat the question
2) Let silence reign for a minute or two and just think
3) Ask the question back. For example, "no we haven't tried that, why would you expect it to work better/differently?"
4) Ask the questioner to repeat the question, they'll use different words which may help you to get to what they're really hoping to learn.
5) Think about the question out loud, without worrying too much about whether or not you answered it. (Personally I wouldn't do this for very long.)

This all went with the advice to speak within your knowledge, be polite (which this guy obviously failed to do) and not be afraid to admit it if you don't know.

Anonymous said...

The best answer to that type of question that I ever saw in a talk was: "We tried that, but it set on fire"!

Anonymous said...

I have often heard this type of question with an invitation. For instance, an established professor will suggest that a questioning student or post-doc come work in his/her lab. Somehow, the invitation to collaborate always seems sort of like a cop-out - but a cop-out that preserves the exciting nature of the question at hand and diffuses any negativity or rudeness in the tone of the question.

Pagan Topologist said...

I often turn such questions into a compliment to the questioner. Something like: "No, but that is a very interesting idea."

idolatricula said...

I wonder if you might go into more detail about these numerous ways to respond to aggressive questions, besides "be calm and polite and prove the questioner wrong."

"I'd've mentioned X if X were relevant" is a bad way of responding to any question - and rude, as PLW mentioned - but beyond politeness, how does one react to a question that's rude in itself? I've seen several examples of Big Professors launching unprovoked attacks on Young Professors, and I would tend to agree with The Lesser Half's continuation of the story...

Helen Huntingdon said...

Heh, if you don't want your work criticized, why in heaven's name would you pick a career in research?

I've gotten good at automatically seeing even outright attacks as nothing more than possibly useful information -- there might be something worth knowing that can be sifted out of what's said, and the rest can simply be disregarded as noise in the signal.

I think it's a different skillset, though related, to handle questions at the end of talks. You're not sifting purely for information of use to yourself, but for chances to further inform your audience. If nothing else you want to inform that you are calm under pressure and willing to offer chances for further discussion one-on-one.

I'm also interested in any further suggestions anyone has for handling post talk q&a sessions.