Empty leture hall

How to engage with feedback in a conference presentation

Last week I shared some ideas about how to present a conference paper effectively. In this post, I focus on the discussion session that follows the actual presentation. The discussion is probably the most valuable aspect of presenting a conference paper, as you will get to interact with people whose insights can help to improve your papers and prepare it for possible publication. Although it can sometimes be an intimidating experience, I hope that this post will help you to better understand the process, and reducing any stress you might be feeling.

In this post you will find information about:

  1. What the discussion phase is like;
  2. Some things you should do when answering questions;
  3. Some common mistakes to avoid;
  4. When not to answer a question.
Empty Lecture Hall
Hörsaal B der Alpen-Adria-Universität By Stefano Probst (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons,

The discussion phase: What it’s like

I suspect that the reason why the post-presentation discussion is so intimidating is because its question-and-answer format is similar to an examination. This is, however, a quite different situation. Even though you feel that there is a power differential, this is an interaction among peers. The audience is not there to test your knowledge: rather, they have chosen to attend your talk because they think that you have something interesting to say. Comments, then, are a sign that the audience engaged with your talk, and – in most cases – that they want to better understand what you said, or that they want to think about it together with you.

There are four main ways in which people might engage with your presentation:

Requests for clarification

Some participants might ask you to give some more information about some aspects of your presentation which they didn’t understand very well, or maybe about parts of your presentation that you didn’t have time to cover in your talk. You might find such requests could seem annoying, especially if you feel that you are being asked to repeat something you have already said. However, it is best to approach these interactions as an opportunity to reflect on how clearly you communicate your ideas. You can find some ideas about dealing with such questions in the next section.

Elaboration comments

If you are lucky, there will be people in the audience who have considerable expertise in your topic, and they might want to chime in with their insights. Such comments might add useful new perspectives on what you have just presented; others might be less helpful. The best comments will suggest specific ways to refine or extend your thinking, or make concrete reading suggestions. Even if they don’t, you can always follow up privately for more feedback.

Challenges

It is possible that some members of the audience may take issue with some aspects of your argument. This may happen if they have a very different perspective on the topic, or different understandings of what is good research. It may also happen because you have made a mistake (we all do!). It’s certainly awkward when what you have said is challenged in public, but at least in this way you are provided with an opportunity to convince the audience that your work is sound. The last two sections of this post are particularly relevant to such situations.

Display comments

While most feedback you get is likely to be helpful in one way or another, some conference participants might hijack the discussion phase to display their knowledge or erudition. Rather than engage with your paper, they use it as a prompt for a tirade about whatever topic which they feel confident discussing. A competent panel chair will be able to spot such comments and deal with them, and the audience generally are familiar enough with such behaviour to ignore it, so you needn’t concern yourself too much about it. That said, you can find some more advice for presenters in the last section of the post.

Answering questions: What to do

There is no ‘correct’ way to answer a question, but I have found that having a template to follow helps me feel more confident. My way of dealing with feedback involves the six steps below, but this is intended as just an example of how to answer a question. Feel free to use this flexibly depending on what makes you feel most comfortable and what makes sense in your situation.

  1. Listen: Allow your interlocutor to develop their comment in full, even if you are fairly sure that you can predict its content. If you cannot hear the question, ask them to repeat.
  2. Rephrase: There are several reasons why it’s very helpful to restate the comment in your own words. To begin with, it is a useful comprehension check, plus it helps you to cognitively process what was said. Furthermore, it ensures that all the members of the audience hear the question (this is especially important when the speaker is in the first rows, facing you and speaking without a microphone). Lastly, it helps you to separate the content of the question from its potentially hostile wording.
  3. Reflect: Don’t rush your answer. A brief reflective pause is appropriate (as well as dramatically effective!)
  4. Reply: Answer with confidence but avoid being absolute. Maintain composure, even if the comment challenges your thinking. Acknowledge mistakes, where necessary, but stand your ground where you must, citing data and your experience to bolster your argument (e.g., “My belief, based on the data that I have worked with, is that…”, “This data is consistent with my experience…”, “Having cross-referenced data from three different sources, I can claim with reasonable confidence that…”)
  5. Confirm: Check whether your reply answered the question, and whether the speaker has any follow-up comments.
  6. Acknowledge: Thank the member of the audience for their feedback. If you have learnt something new, or if the comment has changed the way you understand something, this is the time to say so. You may also want to acknowledge how you might incorporate these insights in future versions of your paper.
Yellow tape reading "Danger" outside a construction site
“Danger” by Shawn Carpenter @ Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Answering questions: What not to do

Let’s now have a look at some common mistakes. In the previous section, I was happy to be open-minded, but the following set of tips is somewhat more prescriptive. In my opinion, you really should avoid all the points below, as they are disrespectful to the audience and undermine your professional image.

  • Do not answer the question with a mini-presentation. Limit your answer to one or two sentences. If that is not possible, explain that you will give a brief, if somewhat partial answer, and that you will be happy to follow up during the coffee break or by email.
  • Do not avoid responsibility for any mistakes that are pointed out. On one occasion, when I pointed out some theoretical inconsistencies in a paper, the presenter informed me that she had drawn on her mentor’s advice, so I should address my concerns to him; on another, a presenter who was challenged for using inappropriate statistical methods claimed that the data analysis had been the responsibility of her (non-presenting) co-author. In both cases, I think that the ‘explanations’ did more to harm the presenters’ image than the actual problems in the paper.
  • Do not be confrontational even if the feedback you receive is hostile. Nobody likes nastiness, so if a member of the audience is being nasty, most members of the audience are likely to be sympathetic to you, the speaker. It would therefore be a bad strategy to turn the tables against you by being nasty as well. Make sure that your reply addresses the content of the question in full, but do not match its rhetorical style.

When not to reply

A last thing to remember is that not all comments are questions, and not all questions require an immediate answer. It is appropriate, and sometimes indeed necessary, to avoid replying in cases such as the following:

  • If are asked a question about which you don’t know enough. In such cases it’s best to acknowledge that the question is a useful prompt for reflection, but refrain from venturing an answer. You could invite the speaker to share their expertise with you after the talk, or email you with useful references.
  • If the comment is not relevant to your talk. Thank the speaker for their insights, but re-state what your talk was about and politely decline to digress (e.g., “Linguistic imperialism is fascinating area of scholarship, but my study focused on language learning strategies, so I don’t feel confident commenting on your remarks”).
  • If a comment is intended for display. Indulge such speakers by listening to what they had to say, thank them for weighing in, and move on. (e.g., “That was a very comprehensive overview of the history of ELT from the 19th century onwards. I doubt there is much that I could add”.)
  • If a comment is being repeatedly stated. Normally, the chair will be able to handle speakers who persist in raising points that have been adequately addressed. If you feel that you can only answer a question by restating what you have already said, it is usually time to stop engaging. Thank the speaker for their views, invite them to make a brief final remark and move to a different question.

As I wrote in the beginning of this post, post-presentation discussions are intellectually stimulating and, in my experience at least, very enjoyable. All you need to do is approach them with a relaxed perspective, and benefit from the chance to interact with like-minded people. Good luck!


Before you go: If you found this post while preparing for a conference presentation, I hope it has answered your questions, and helped you to feel less anxious. Do feel free to add any other ideas you have which readers might find helpful. Also please feel free to use the social sharing buttons below this post to forward this post to anyone who might find it interesting. Good luck with your presentations!

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