Conference papers: How to engage with feedback

Last week I shared some ideas about how to present a conference paper effectively. In the second instalment of this series, I focus on the discussion session that follows the actual presentation.

For me at least, the discussion is the most valuable aspect of attending a conference, as I get to interact with people whose insights can help to improve my papers. However, it is true that for many presenters this can be an intimidating experience. I hope that this post can be of some help in better understanding the process, and reducing any undue trepidation. To that end, I begin by describing the types of comments that you are likely to get; next I share some dos and don’ts on answering questions; and finally I discuss when an answer is not necessary.

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.

In terms of actual content, comments in the discussion phase will most likely fall into one of the following categories:

  • Requests for clarification: You may be asked to talk about some aspects of your paper which were not well understood, or which you didn’t have time to cover in your talk. Such comments could seem annoying, especially if you feel that you made to repeat what you have already said, the best way to approach these comments is as an opportunity to reflect on how clearly you communicate your ideas. In the next section of this, there is some advice on how to deal with such questions.
  • Elaboration comments: Hopefully, there will be members of the audience will be able to bring their expertise to bear on your topic, and offer additional perspectives on what you have said. Some of these comments may not show a good understanding of what you have talked about, and others may not be obviously helpful. However, you are likely to get new insights that extend or refine your thinking, reading suggestions, and more advice on improving on your paper, all of which you should acknowledge graciously.
  • Challenges: Sometimes, members of the audience may take issue with your argument. This may happen if they have a very different perspective on the topic, or on research quality; or perhaps you have made a mistake. 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 about the soundness of your work, in a professional manner. 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 some 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.
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Answering questions: what to do

The is no ‘correct’ way to answer a question, but I find that having a template to follow can help one feel more confident. So, despite the title of this section, what follows is intended not as a prescriptive guide, but rather as an example of how a question might be effectively answered. One way, then, to react to feedback involves the following six steps:

  1. Listen: Allow your interlocutor to develop their comment in full, even if you are fairly sure 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 allows 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.

Answering questions: What not to do

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. On both occasions, I think that the ‘explanations’ did more to harm the presenters’ image than the actual infelicities in the paper.
  • Do not be confrontational even if the feedback you receive is hostile. Nasty comments are occasionally made (although they are very rare!). On those infrequent occasions, most members of the audience are sympathetic to speakers, so it would be bad strategy to not 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 rhetorical style in which it was delivered.

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. Generally speaking, if you feel that you can only answer a question by restating what you have already said, it is 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!

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