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My field is atmospheric physics.

The irony is that I have been a school teacher for over a decade, but soon, I'll be giving a presentation of some of my findings at a conference. I think that the nerves stem from speaking about my own research in front of my peers - something that I have not done to a large audience.

The questions that will no doubt be ask fill me with anticipation in both positive and negative ways.

Asides from being prepared, making sure the presentation is seamless and that I have a good night's sleep beforehand and 'knowing my stuff' inside and out. What are some strategies to anticipate the type of questions that would likely arise from a conference presentation?

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    Have rehearsal in front of your colleagues would help. – scaaahu Jun 17 '13 at 9:53
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    Write down questions that you think the audience may ask, and have answers or backup slides ready for them. – cartonn Jun 17 '13 at 17:43
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There are a few obvious questions to ask yourself in planning for questions:

  • What are the inherent weaknesses in the current work? (Almost no research is completely "airtight," so figuring out where the weak spots are will make a difference.)

  • What are the ramifications of whatever assumptions I have made? Are they logical? What happens if I strengthen, relax, or eliminate some of those assumptions? Will everything still work in the more general (or more restricted) case?

  • How would I apply this work to other problems? How will it help others in the field?

And then, with respect to the presentation:

  • Have I left anything out in the interests of time that would potentially interest the user? Is the research methodology clear?

If there's anything in the last point, you may want to plan on having additional "backup" slides which highlight that info, but that aren't part of the "main" talk.

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  • Thank you for this, (+1). I totally agree that there is no such thing as an 'air tight' research, and the additional backup slides would logically have information pertaining to your first 3 points. – user7130 Jun 17 '13 at 10:00
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One strategy to adopt when answering questions is to first repeat back the essence of the question to the questioner:

If I understand correctly, you are asking ....

This will have two effects. Firstly, it ensures that you are actually answering the correct question. Secondly, it will buy you a little bit of time to gather your thoughts and think a bit about an answer.

Take your time when answering questions, rather than rushing to the first answer that pops into your head. In the end, it is okay to say, "I don't know" or to ask to discuss the question off-line, but the latter can seem like a bit of a cop-out. Try to answer the question, but only if the message is not getting through can you suggest to take it off-line.

But the real key is to practice your presentation extensively. If you deliver a good presentation and you know it, you will feel great and thus comfortable to answer questions.

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  • Similar in effect to a well prepared and executed lesson. – user7130 Jun 17 '13 at 10:34
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    really good advice – posdef Jun 17 '13 at 11:57
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    On a side note, repeating the question also makes sure the rest of your audience knows what the question was. If someone in the front asks a question (without a microphone), the people in the back will most likely not have heard it. – Deruijter Jun 17 '13 at 14:14
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In addition to strategies for anticipating questions, I thought it would be helpful to suggest how to cope with the nerves. I find that it sometimes helps to remind yourself a couple of things:

  1. Remember that you have been working and thinking about your specific question probably more than most people hearing the talk - they are just hearing about your work for the first time. Even if there are important and smart people in the audience, you are the expert on your work.
  2. Personally, I find that I am similarly anxious before giving talks regarding my work. However, it somehow always plays out fine - the atmosphere is usually relaxed and the questions tend to be either simple clarifications or interesting discussions. I suspect I am not the only person who experiences this.
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  • Yes, in the smaller scale speeches I have given, this tended to happen. I switched into 'teacher mode' (my day to day job) – user7130 Jun 18 '13 at 10:18
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Most of the questions you'll receive will either 1) ask for clarification about your methodology/results, or 2) suggest avenues of future work. Questions of the first kind are usually very easy (presumably you did the research and know the answer ;) ) and the second kind can be very helpful for identifying new research directions and collaborators! If you've already thought about the proposed direction, obviously chip in any insights you might have, but if not, "that's an interesting suggestion, and something I'd be interested in looking at in future work" is all you really need to say.

There are only a few realistic ways the Q&A session can go off of the rails. You might get questions like

  • "How does your work compare to [Foo et al 2003]" (you have no idea who Foo is or what his method does)
  • "Does your work account for (some factor you don't understand)?"
  • "How might your work apply to (some area you know nothing about)?"

You can fall into the trap of feeling that you should know the answer, and that admitting ignorance is embarrassing... but the worst thing you can do is to bluff or make stuff up. If people "smell blood in the water" and get the impression that you are being misleading, they will come back with even more hostile questions. Instead, remember that you are in control of the conversation, and hold the ultimate trump:

  • "Unfortunately I'm not familiar offhand with the method of Foo et al, but I'd be happy to chat with you offline about it after the session."
  • "I don't know offhand, but I'd be happy to chat more offline."
  • "Unfortunately I'm not too familiar with (area X), but I'd love to talk to you later about possible applications of my work there."
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There is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing the answer to a difficult question; if we know the answers to all the questions, then by definition it isn't research. Being comfortable with not knowing the answer should help with nerves. The questions are generally asked out of genuine interest, rather than as a test, so the person asking the question is not necessarily expecting you to have a good answer anyway. User168715's suggestion (+1) of saying "I don't know offhand, but I'd be happy to chat more off-line" is a good one", and is a good way of exchanging ideas with others interested in the same sorts of work as yourself.

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