How to deal with those awkward conference questions (according to Twitter)

After myself and Jeff Clements penned this blog, covering appropriate questions to ask at conferences, many people asked us to run a follow up on how to deal with inappropriate questions when they inevitably do happen.

Picture it now, you’ve just absolutely smashed a conference talk about your research, you’re feeling great. The last slide is up and you turn to the audience and ask: ‘Any questions?’. The microphone is passed to a bespectacled individual sat in the centre of the room who asks ‘what is your favourite colour?’ Or even, in the case of Jessica Haines, ‘what is your reproductive strategy?’ How do you respond??

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I turned to the fantastic academic community on Twitter to ask just that.

In terms of inapproprate questions, the most common answer was to ask the person to catch them during coffee, although very closely followed by trying your best to answer.

Of course, the response depends on just how inappropriate the question is, but it is clear most people would not feel comfortable directly calling out an inappropriate question. This can be especially the case for early career academics and students.

On the flip side, a number of people pointed out that the last thing they would want to do is speak to an inappropriate questioner during coffee – to which my suggestion is to to avoid/run away from them during the break (I am nothing if not mature. DISCLAIMER: not guaranteed to work at small conferences).

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Other great suggestions included:

And some very honest responses that may or may not be the best way of tackling it:

Now imaging that bespectacled audience member has instead launched into the longest most boring monologue ever. What did people think was the best way to tackle that?

Well, as you can see, most people said asking them if they had a question was their preferred response. A fairly sizable proportion would just brush them off with an ‘interesting point!’.

I have to say this was fairly heartening as ‘Do you have a question?’ has been my response in the past!

I think my favourite suggestion was just to wander off stage:

Other good tips included:

What came out a lot that it is really the chairs, not the questioners responsibility to deal with and potentially cut off inappropriate questions. Whilst we won’t always have a good chair, most of us will have to chair conference sessions ourselves at some point, and many of us have already done so.

When pitched the same question from the chairs perspective most people favoured  simply cutting the questioner off, however over a third also felt they would directly call the questioner out.

Most people said their response would depend on why the question was inappropriate, and who the speaker was:

Although one person had a potentially more fun solution

One thing that did come out of this was that, although most people felt that it was the chairs place to deal with these questions, many ECRs would not feel comfortable calling people out, or even interjecting, if the question was inappropriate, especially if the questioner was more senior than them.

What could really help with improving not only the chairing of sessions, but also the quality of questions sessions in general, would be if guidelines were shared at conferences on what is expected of the chair – this would give people more confidence to enforce the rules and prevent long or aggressive questioning of speakers.

Oh, and of course, directing attendees to my last blog 😉

 

 

 

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