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I recently messed up my presentation in front of the audience because I couldn't answer or understand their questions well enough (even after I asked them to clarify their question). I keep ruminating about the moment and can't focus on work. I'm wondering if you have any strategies to overcome the embarrassment.

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    In addition to Buffy's actual answer to your question, take this opportunity to learn for the future, that years from now when you're the moderator for a conference and a speaker is in the same trouble, please, throw them a life line and help explain / tell them to take it off-line.
    – Ian
    Feb 8, 2023 at 23:03
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    To be honest, my first understandable talk was my 10th or so, I was terrible at public speaking. You learn, and most of the audience has been in your same position, so they understand. Feb 9, 2023 at 14:40
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    The only practical choice is getting used to it.
    – Michael
    Feb 10, 2023 at 0:50
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    It is impossible to find through google due to the number of pages on his successful speeches, but Winston Churchill's first address to parliament was such a failure he eventually just gave up and sat down partway through (to much derision from the rest of parliament).
    – jMan
    Feb 10, 2023 at 14:15
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    It is my observation that such "screwups" in our heads looks at least an order worse than they actually were.
    – Spook
    Feb 11, 2023 at 14:46

7 Answers 7

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There are several reasons for which one does not understand a question well enough:

  1. The person asking the question uses terms/concepts coming from an other field or outside the knowledge of the speaker.
  2. The person asking the question is not familiar with the subject of the topic hence the question might not have a precise/formally correct sense.
  3. Some concepts are named in a way by a community, an other one by an other community and we can have a "language" issue.

There are also reasons for which the speaker cannot answer the question.

  1. The question is actually subtle, and the answer could be the scope of a paper.
  2. The question is quite broad.
  3. The question does not make sense (I did not say it was the case in the context of the mentioned talk, and this does not have to be taken in a condescending way). This can happen when the audience is not familiar with the topic and can of course happen even if you are familiar with it.
  4. Some questions are almost impossible to answer, like: "this makes me think about (replace by anything you want). Is there a connection between these two concepts?" Of course you can answer if there is one but it will be hard to say that the two concepts are unrelated. It is not impossible that someone in a few years will indeed make the connection.
  5. Some questions require some thinking process but you do not have the time during a talk, like: "do you have an example satisfying this but not that".
  6. Some are unexpected (both in terms of timing and content) and even with a good preparation, we cannot anticipate everything.
  7. Lack of expertise in some parts of what was presented, which can happen very easily in a joint work, no matter how good one is.

These were reasons for which the situation of not answering a question can happen. Now the thing is what to when this happens. There is no miracle solution, but here are some possible approaches:

  1. If you are for example in the situation of 5. (the story with example), you can still give your opinion about the question: what makes you think that such an example can exist, some names of authors that may have explored these kind of things.
  2. Try to write down the questions that were asked just after the talk in order to not to forget. For the next talks, it will help to see the kind of questions you can have and try to anticipate.
  3. Observe actively the speaker's behavior when you are yourself in the audience of a talk and especially during the question time.
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    I have a whole lake of expertise, but sometimes it's not enough.
    – Stef
    Feb 10, 2023 at 10:37
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    I’d add a fourth reason why the question is not understood – in my experience by far the most common: the question is quite simply incomprehensible. Whenever I attend talks at conferences (in the historical linguistics field), at least half the questions that come from the audience are overlong, overly detailed, meandering, self-contradictory and without any clarity. The presenter often ends up answering a completely different question, because no one really has any idea what the question actually was. Feb 11, 2023 at 10:51
61

At the moment you just need to move on and recognize that not everything will always be perfect. Take a deep breath, have a culturally appropriate beverage.

For the future, when you don't understand a question and can't say something sensible, ask the questioner to "take it off line" and to either discuss it with you later or to contact you at their convenience.

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    I'd call this academic machismo. There is the expectation that Smart People always have the answers to all questions and that to not have an answer is a sign of weakness, much like not saying "yeah I can lift that" right before blowing out your entire back.
    – Borgh
    Feb 10, 2023 at 15:19
  • @Borgh ...and then the real machos are the ones easily willing to accept their limitations, for they have overcome insecurities and are not afraid to... lose their jobs, I don't know? - because of inability to answer a question they presumably should have known an answer to. As to the advice given here, I would say taking questions offline is a part of a broader heuristic, which is limiting the time one spends answering them. 3-5 seconds should be enough to make a decision to answer, to take offline, to say "sorry, I do not know" and/or to make a pleading eye contact with the session chair.
    – Lodinn
    Feb 11, 2023 at 9:03
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    Maybe -- after the culturally appropriate beverage but before too much time has passed -- the OP might try to have a conversation with somebody, partly in order to get an independent opinion (the OP may have perceived an embarrassing "failure" where there was none) and partly in order to do a post mortem: What went wrong, how should I have handled it, how can I avoid it in the future, how do we proceed? That "somebody" could be an acquaintance who was there or the organizers, or even somebody who was not involved at all but is competent. Feb 11, 2023 at 13:37
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Public speaking is hard for almost everyone. From a previous question of yours, it seems you also find it hard. Fortunately, like many human endeavors, one can get better at it and ultimately more comfortable.

First, training on public speaking and presentations may be available at your institution. You should ask around in your department, school, or a graduate advisor office if there is such training available. It could be anywhere from an hour presentation up through a multi-day short course with specific instructor feedback on short presentations that you have done.

Second, practice practice practice. This could be something like Toastmasters, or just be part of your normal research group activities. Where I did my postdoc, grad students were expected to present a slide or more on what they had done lately at the weekly group meeting. They got lots of practice standing in front of the group and trying to explain things while getting questions on it. This also meant they had to figure out what the questions where about, since they were not always clear from their fellow students. It also meant that by the time they got to a conference talk, just about every question that could be asked about the work had already been asked of them.

Third, teach a class or review section. While public speaking practice in general, it also is a situation where you need to think on your feet as you get asked questions by students.

Public speaking is one of the biggest fears of just about everyone. You can get better at it, with time and effort.

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    About Toastmasters: a friend and very prominent person in computing overcame issues related to being on the autism spectrum via Toastmasters (and joining an acting company). He is well known and respected for his speaking ability at conferences. Yes, practice.
    – Buffy
    Feb 8, 2023 at 21:45
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    I've been in Toastmasters for several years. I went from being extremely nervous giving even the shortest speeches (and usually doing so poorly that my nervousness was justified!) to actually enjoying giving speeches. Highly recommended. Feb 10, 2023 at 4:59
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I agree with others that it's not as big an issue as you're probably making it at the moment, and you'd be well served by taking a deep breath, relaxing about it, and just moving forward. Everyone in academia has attended their share of bad talks, and it's nothing you can't bounce back from.

That said, I'd also recommend you try to turn the rumination into reflection. -- The distinction here is that "rumination" implies dwelling on the issue, continually poking hurt feelings without any sort of forward progress, while "reflection" is ideally an objective (emotionally neutral) process by which you attempt to discern how you might better your performance next time.

In particular, it sounds like the Q&A section was the hard part for you. You probably want to reflect (rather than ruminate) about why you had issues with it. Were the questioners using unfamiliar terminology? Were they asking about a sub-area which you're unfamiliar? Were they coming at the issue from a different perspective? (e.g. a pure mathematician and an experimental physicist attending the same astrophysics talk will have very different ways of looking at things) Or was it just that you were nervous and flustered, and couldn't make sense of things at the time?

One suggestion is to approach trusted colleague(s) who were in attendance at the talk and see how they interpreted the questions. Were they able to understand the questions? If not, keep in mind you do sometimes get befuddled questions from audience members who are deep in the Dunning–Kruger sweet spot for the topic. On the other hand, if your colleague(s) did understand the questions, discuss things with them and reflect to figure out what you were missing at the time. What was it about the question which caused you not to be able to interpret it at the time? What extra thing did you need to know to be properly able to understand the question?

Hopefully, objective reflection (rather than rumination) will point you to what you were missing at the time, and that will present an obvious course of action. (e.g. If you were simply nervous, practice more to gain confidence. If you didn't understand the terminology or perspective used, read more widely from that angle. If it was a sub-area you aren't familiar with, become more familiar with that area.)


As a final note, keep in mind that questions which are formed during a talk are often predicated by missed understandings (this includes situations where it's missed because the speaker forgot to mention it). Instead of spending a bunch of time (and awkwardness) getting the questioner to more precisely define the question, it's often worth simply identifying the part of the talk (e.g. the slide) the question is about and then simply re-iterate or clarify the point at issue. This will either (1) answer the question (2) prompt the person to formulate a more precise follow-on based on your recent phrasing or (3) let the questioner realize that the question isn't worth it. -- I've seen more than one senior professor use this approach to address questions they obviously didn't fully understand.

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Probably no-one apart from you is going to remember in a few days time, so learn from the experience and think about how you could do it better next time.

The era we live in seems to be replete with this attitude that we need to constantly beat ourselves up all the time when we mess things up, which is definitely not healthy in the long run. So you should go easy on yourself, relax and then identify if there is anything you could do to avoid a similar situation happening again.

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The question is:

I keep ruminating about the moment and can't focus on work. I'm wondering if you have any strategies to overcome the embarrassment.

Absolutely - give another talk as soon as possible!

While @Buffy's "culturally appropriate beverage" humorously suggests diluting your memory of the experience with something (potentially) other than tea, what really works is to dilute it and make it less relevant by adding more memories of talks that go better.

As soon as possible, schedule another talk, perhaps with a more familiar audience, perhaps with a slightly simpler topic, and welcome questions and answer some.

Distract yourself by having a more immediate and more positive experience, such that this one occupies less space in memory.

While other answers focus on improving, best way to overcome falling off of a bicycle is to get back on the bicycle and put some bicycling distance between you and where you fell.

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With the exception of ultra-rare congenital superstars, we've all been there. Buffy and Jon give good technical advice. One thing that's helped me on the emotional side in similar circumstances is going to the end-of-conference social event and seeing that the folks with whom my talk had bombed didn't think any less of me personally, we were all still friends.

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