Conferences: Presentation Etiquette

This is the second of two posts about conferencing, seeing as conference season is now well underway. In my first post, I detailed some top tips for enjoying a conference, and employing good conference etiquette. Here, I discuss presenting (and being presented to); or, to be more exact, the bit that comes after presenting: asking and answering questions.

I am always surprised at how some people approach the question and answer session after conference presentations, and this post is based solely on my own experience of having watched and participated in question and answer sessions at conferences I have attended in person.

I'm currently in Orkney for #StMag16 which, fortunately, is packed with pleasant and friendly delegates.

I’m currently in Orkney for #StMag16 which, fortunately, is packed with pleasant and friendly delegates.

As an increasing amount of literature suggests, there’s probably a high chance that the presenter in front of you suffers from some sort of Imposter Syndrome, especially if you’re at a conference where many of the presenters are research students or early career researchers. Whenever you stand up there to give a presentation, regardless of whether or not you’re super-experienced and confident at public speaking, at the back of your mind will always be the question and answer session that will follow. Will someone identify any flaws in my research? What if they focus in on the one thing that I know I need to work on? Or, worse, mention a key text that I’ve never heard of?

A few years ago, I was at my own institution’s postgraduate research conference. This conference, as with many inter-multi-shove-everyone-together conferences (which, by the way, I love – not least because you can learn so much about presenting and research skills from them, even if you’re a folklorist with no interest whatsoever in zebra-fish), was specifically designed to share current research amongst the postgraduate cohort; but also to help researchers develop their presentation skills. Anyway, one member of staff (who I will not mention by name) was there as a supervisor to at least one of the students presenting and, presumably, due to his general interest. Let’s just repeat that: he was there presumably partially in a supportive-supervisor capacity. I watched this guy in two different presentations ask those kind of questions that make you roll your eyes. You know the ones I mean: if they had subtitles, they would have screamed ‘LOOK AT HOW MUCH I KNOW, MWAHAHA, AREN’T I CLEVER’. Clever isn’t the word which sprang to my mind.

The first researcher deflected the ‘question’ pretty deftly – there’s an art to that, too – but the second researcher crumbled. They had already been visibly nervous, and the posed question was just cruel.

My research is interdisciplinary, and I live in perpetual concern that I am going to miss out on a key text or development. But, the truth is, there are so, so many reasons why I might not have read that book or referenced that journal article. My research could go in infinite directions and, as long as I can justify the direction it is currently taking (and can, ultimately, justify this upon examination), then that’s just fine. One of the things I am making myself learn during my PhD is that, sometimes, things being just fine and sufficient is all that’s necessary. I certainly hope that, whatever I do in years to come, I don’t consider my PhD my magnum opus. As one of my supervisors tells me regularly; my thesis shouldn’t be expected to be my final word on the topic.

There are a few ways to deflect questions such as these, a good one being “that’s really interesting, I’d love to pick this conversation up with you later”. That, of course, is also a suitable response to less aggressive questioning. Maybe we should all have a conference code to handle questions such as these. Some kind of key word we could all use in our responses.

I’ve also seen questions from the floor aim to be supportive in highlighting perceived flaws but, unless you know for a fact that you’re a great communicator and can make suggestions in a collegiate way, then there’s a fine line between good intentions and robust academic discussion, and derailing someone’s presentation.

These images were taken in Orkney in March 2016.

These images were taken in Orkney in March 2016.

On the flip side, I have been to several presentations where someone without an in-depth academic knowledge of the subject in question asks something which may on the surface of it seem obvious or provocative. And I have seen the presenters react almost scathingly, trying to bring the rest of the room into a mocking joke at the expense of the person who posed the question. That kind of behaviour is academically unacceptable. If you can’t be gracious enough to answer a question asked in good faith, then you don’t deserve to be given a platform to present your views (research or otherwise).

To me, presentations at conferences are the start of a conversation. They kickstart an interesting debate which, hopefully, continues off the conference floor, whether in person or by email. If your question isn’t progressing that conversation in a collegiate way, you’re probably wasting everyone’s time – and there is never enough time for debate and conversations at conferences in the first instance.

To sum up: if you’re only asking a question to show off your own knowledge, don’t. Not because all researchers are delicate little flowers and need protecting (we certainly need to build up our resilience – but hey, the PhD alone does that pretty well, in case you hadn’t realised), but because you’ll probably look like a bit of a tool. And, if you get asked what seems like a simple or obvious question, have the grace to answer it politely. Ultimately, if we can’t communicate our research to our fellow human beings with respect, then our research becomes self-indulgent; and we probably don’t deserve the opportunity to progress it further.

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