Congrats, you’ve made it—you’re presenting your research to an audience. The audience might be a crew of hungry grad students or a committee of stern scientists. They might be novices or experts in your field. Whoever the crowd, presenting science is hard, but the most challenging part for many scientists is responding to the questions that follow.
In addition to practicing your presentation and responses to pre-empted questions, below are some tips to put your best answers forward.
- You have the basic knowledge: You’re in STEM because you’re smart and capable. You’ve taken the coursework and read the literature; you know your research better than any other scientist. The first step in addressing a comment or question from your audience is to take a moment to assess your knowledge storage—chances are, you can make a logical step towards an articulate answer, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
- Remain positive and focused: The audience isn’t there to heckle you. (Well, usually.) Questions that may seem testy are, more often than not, borne out of genuine interest in your work. Keep this in mind to focus on the task at hand and give a useful answer. Provide the simple answer first! If an audience wants more explanation, they can ask.
- Being wrong is okay: Remember that knowledge store? It’s not infinite. A defining feature of science is its endlessness, and it’s not your job to traverse it all within a few minutes of Q&A. If a question leaves you truly stuck, accept it. Be upfront when you’re not sure of a fact, and let your inquisitive querier know that you’ll follow up with them to provide more information after the presentation. It’s more important to concede ignorance than provide false information.
- Be grateful and polite: It’s always a good idea to thank your audience or committee for a thoughtful comment. Criticism can be difficult to handle, but a mumbled retort is far less productive than a genuine reply, for instance, “Thanks, that’s an interesting question, and I hadn’t thought of running analyses using that method.” Let your audience know that you’re learning from them, too.
- Follow up with ideas: As harrowing as oral presentations can be, remember that having access to a live committee of experts in your field is a valuable opportunity to make your science better. Challenging questions are sometimes the breeding ground for a two-way conversation on science and, even better, for a discussion of your research and ideas! Maximize on Q&A sessions by engaging in an enthusiastic and active manner with your audience—you may leave them wanting more.
What are the best strategies that you practice to answer challenging questions? Leave them in comments below!
Gabrielle-Ann Torre is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.