Winging it at question time (a primer)

Adrian Martin has given you advice on preparing for a conference presentation. Now, he points out that you must not ‘collapse’ the moment you’ve read the final, prepared word of your paper: save some strength (and brain waves) for the question-and-discussion part…


Question time after giving a paper is always scary – for everyone, at whatever stage of an academic career. It’s especially scary when you’re giving your first, early career presentations. No matter how many supportive friends and family members you may have carefully packed the room with in advance, there will always be somebody (and possibly many bodies) quite unknown to you. And therefore, potentially, a bit of a worry.

Being, naturally enough, nervous, you’ll be prone to a touch of paranoia: imagining that every unfamiliar person in the room is out to ‘take you down’. I’m not going to entirely sugar this bitter pill for you: a dose of paranoia is actually justifiable (and even healthy), because there may indeed be somebody in the room ready to attack by the time you’ve finished reading out your paper! And that could be anybody from a fellow student, or someone on the same panel as you, to the conference’s principal, keynote speaker. It could even be one of your own teachers, or supervisors. You can never guess who’s going to disagree with you, or take umbrage with something you said. Or didn’t say – I’ve seen people criticised more often for what they apparently “left out” than for what they actually left in.

In this state, it’s actually hard to really ‘hear’ and comprehend what anyone is saying to you from the floor at discussion time. It’s very easy to instantly misinterpret a simple, factual, dispassionate question (on the order of “could you clarify what you meant by …?”) as an assault on the very core of your scholarly being. And if it’s indeed an assault, it might be near-impossible for you to grasp, on the spot, where that critique is ‘coming from’, in the sense of what values, interests or backgrounds it represents (what the French call the underlying problematic of any statement). But, as you have no time to conduct an instant, in-depth, probing interview of your inquisitor to figure out their problematic, you usually have to wing it.

So, to stay as calm and centred as you can be, I advise the following. First, have some points in reserve, that you did not include in the paper itself. This especially helps when you get the (often inevitable) ‘oranges or lemons’ type of question: “Why did you discuss oranges when you could have spoken about lemons?” Believe me: anything you’re asked (especially if you don’t understand the question at all, which can happen) can be ‘bent toward’ some extra point to be made: “What you’re saying makes me think of the idea that …”. Confession: I have used this technique often in public!

Second – and this is the hardest thing for any of us to do – try to anticipate some possible criticisms and questions. If you’ve already guessed what the absences or even the ‘weak spots’ in your presentation are, it’s a cinch to then convincingly declare during question time: “Yes, I take up that very point in the larger work but this is only one, small part” – and then quickly say something extremely knowledgeable about it.

Another hint: you will be prone to moments of everyday panic in the seminar/conference situation. So, when you open your mouth to answer a question, give yourself a few moment’s breathing space by uttering something on the order of: “Good question. You know, the type of idea you’re proposing there can be taken in several different directions, and what it really suggests to me today is that …” – and, by then, enough micro-seconds will have passed that you’ll now have something intelligent to say. This is all part of the necessary rhetoric of public speaking. Such tricks are nothing to be ashamed of; they’re part of the survival skills you need in academia in order to not fall flat on your face!

Let’s face it: academia can sometimes be a nasty, territorial, combative space. But, even if you’re temperamentally up for a good old intellectual fistfight, I suggest trying to stay in ‘friendly’ mode during the discussion following your conference presentation. If you can refer to somebody else’s paper on the same panel, or elsewhere in the conference (such as the keynote lectures), that helps foster goodwill around you. Don’t instantly go on the aggressive – even if latent (or manifest) aggression is what you’re sensing from your inquisitor.

And one last thing: when you stand up to leave, and pack your things (the paper, your pen, any technological prostheses), really try to focus on what you brought in, and thus what you need to take away with you. I always know, when I enter a conference room, if a panel or speaker before me has had a bad or hard time: they’ve usually left half their personal gear strewn everywhere, as they stumbled for fresh air, their best friend’s reassuring embrace, or a cigarette! I can even show you a fascinating assortment of forgotten USB sticks I’ve collected over the past decade at various conferences…


Do you have any tricks of your own to tackle question-time at a Conference? Have you put any strategies in place to prepare for this part of your presentation? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Adrian Martin is Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University. He is also a freelance writer based in Spain, and has recently released a website containing 40 years of his work – Film Critic: Adrian Martin. His book Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016 will appear from Amsterdam University Press in 2018.


Image: Any Questions? / Matthias Ripp / CC BY 2.0

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