Research hacks #18: 20 further tips on fielding questions after a conference paper

This is the second of two posts on how to field questions after your paper at an academic conference. The first one, which covers preparing for question time and knowing your main point, can be found here.

Get to know the main types of question

If you want to know how to answer any given question, it is useful to have a sense of the different types of question that are customarily asked at conferences. Here are the main types of question I have heard asked over the years:

  • “Can you explain…” Someone is genuinely interested but simply didn’t understand something you said. You answer by going back to the point in your paper to which they are referring and fleshing out your point at more length. Simple. If you have an example or illustration, use it. When you’ve finished explaining, ask if the explanation made more sense second time round. If the questioner is asking about something very technical that most people in the room will not understand, keep your response brief and offer to chat further with them later in the day.

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  • “Have you thought about X?” This can be three sorts of question masquerading under the same words.
    • The first sort is benign, and its tone is “hey, I think there’s a book or article you might be interested in”. You don’t need to defend yourself or elaborate on what they have said, just  thank the questioner and note down their suggestion.
    • The second sort of question masquerading under the formula “Have you thought about X?” has more the tone of “I’m struggling to understand your paper, but something you said reminded me of X, whose work I do know. Could you talk about them please?” If you have something to say about X then great, go for it. If not, then perhaps ask the questioner to let you in on their thinking a little more: “what was it about my paper that put you in mind of X?” or “what, specifically, are you thinking of in X’s work that resonates with my paper?” The more concrete and specific the questioner gets, the easier it will be for you latch on to something to talk about.
    • The final sort of “Have you thought about X?” question is the most aggressive of the three. Reading between the lines, the questioner is saying “I’m surprised you haven’t read X, because he/she/it completely undermines everything you have said!” The first thing to realise here is that X almost certainly does not undermine everything you have said, unless you begin with X’s assumptions and use X’s concepts. So don’t panic. Again, invite the questioner to be as concrete and specific as possible and try to find the point at which the axioms or commitments of your own position differ from those of X. You might end up with a response something like “I can see that, if you start where X starts, then my position would indeed seem to be as you describe. But that’s not where it starts. Let me explain…” Read more on >>