How to ask questions at academic presentations without being a jerk

OK, let me just start by saying that I have been That Guy (in a gender-neutral sense) many, many times. You know what I mean? The one who asks a question that makes you surreptitiously elbow the person next to you or doodle “WTF?” on your notepad. It’s hard! There are so many ways to be obnoxious at an academic presentation! Especially for those of us with egos (not me, of course — I’m just being helpful), the temptation to grandstand can be overwhelming.

Thus! I am compiling this list of dos and don’ts so that I, more than anyone else, will remember to do them and don’t them. Are there some I’m missing?

Ask a genuine question.
I cringe when I think about my behavior at a recent conference, when I responded to a presentation by triumphantly proclaiming, “Yes, but what about X?” I was so pleased with myself for knowing about X, and so pleased that I knew something the presenter didn’t know, that I forgot to ask a real question. Obviously, the presenter did not know about X, and this wasn’t a genuine question for her. I asked it so the audience would know that I was a great genius and knew about X. Don’t do this.

Keep it short, and resist the temptation to qualify.
This thing happens while I’m waiting to ask a question where my brain performs the following gymnastics:

1. I have a question!
2. What a great question!
3. But wait! Is it actually a dumb question?
4. Does everyone else already know what the answer is and I’m just ignorant?
5. I know! I shall demonstrate that I am actually quite well-read and thoughtful by prefacing my question with an extended monologue, in which I explain that this question is not actually about this, but about that, which I thought of because I know about this other thing and what that one guy said about it!

Yeah, don’t do that. Just ask the question, and if it makes you look dumb, take the hit. It probably doesn’t, anyway.

Ask a question that has broad interest.

“Broad interest” is always a relative term in academia, but think about the audience. If they’re there to hear about, like, Emily Dickinson, they probably don’t care what Emily Dickinson thought about leper colonies in Louisiana, even if that’s your great and important research project. It’s not like academic presenters are rock stars. You’ll get a chance to ask your question one-on-one, promise.

Start off with a compliment.
It’s hard to get up in front of an audience and do your thing. Unless the presenter is very experienced, her first thought on getting a question is more likely to be “Is this hostile?” than “What does this person want to know?” In my experience, starting off with a quick compliment (“That was really interesting. Thanks for that.”) goes a surprisingly long way toward putting the presenter at ease and allowing her to focus on the substance, rather than the tone, of your question.

Allow the presenter a graceful way to defend herself or decline to answer.
It’s OK to argue with a presenter, but it’s not OK to hector. Yes, these are Very Important Issues and the world should hear your point, but the stakes are higher for the presenter than for the questioner. If the presenter is clearly not equipped to defend herself, or can’t provide a satisfactory answer, you need to let it go. The audience is smart enough to understand what’s going on, and you won’t accomplish anything by needling the presenter, other than making yourself look like a jerk.

19 Replies to “How to ask questions at academic presentations without being a jerk”

  1. This is a good list and speaks to many of the performative problems of the academic presentation. It would be interesting to compile a list of the things that speakers can do to better respond to questions. One of the things that I find hardest about academic presentations is how often the speaker is unwilling to actually answer the question s/he has been asked. It’s much more common for the question to be deflected into what the person wishes s/he had been asked. Conference protocol allows the questioner to ask the question one more time, but if it is again deflected, things have to move on. As an occasional presenter myself, it’s good to be able to use this trick, but it’s frustrating that the dialog gets stopped in this way.

    FWIW, I get annoyed by the same thing in NPR interviews.

  2. Ha, I’m guilty of the deflect-the-question thing myself! I take the “Answer the question you wish they’d asked” approach. Despite my best intentions, the presentation format just … it’s not really the place for an honest exchange. Like you said, it’s a place to perform and jockey for position.

    A new mode of conferencing is called for! If only there was some kind of … camp, where people could, like, interact with each other informally. I shall call it THIScamp!


  3. Or, if only there was some kind of … camp, where people could, like, interact with each other informally by relaxing-like dressing up in silly over the top clothing! I shall call it GLAMcamp!

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