Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How (not) to ask questions at seminars, etc...

There is an interesting discussion over at another blog (Dr. Jekyll & Mrs. Hyde) about how (not) to ask questions at seminars, conferences and so forth. This topic is of particular interest for women scientists, since many of us are somewhat intimidated about speaking up in front of large groups.

Most of us are familiar with the guys who always ask questions--not because they really have a burning desire to know everything, but more to speak up about their views/work/accomplishments, etc. and basically to call attention to themselves. That approach is something everyone should avoid, lest you be pegged as a pest.

However, it's important to develop one's presence (and voice) by speaking up at gatherings of scientists. When I was less experienced, I never asked questions or spoke up--and was consequently overlooked when people were asked to participate in workshops, conference symposia, and other events. A carefully thought-out question or offer of additional information during a question-and-answer session can go a long way toward establishing yourself as knowledgeable in your field (and will boost your confidence).

Along the same lines, women should learn how to speak with confidence when giving presentations or leading groups. I heard a great talk by Dr. Judith Swift (University of Rhode Island Communications Studies and Theater) who spoke at the 2007 ERF Conference in Providence, RI. The title of her presentation was “Communicating Science Through the Filter of Gender.” She had a great many insights and tips to share, in an often amusing delivery.

One of her suggestions was to "claim your space", which men seem to do naturally. How many of you stand very still and try to be as inconspicuous as possible when speaking to an audience? Swift gave a very amusing demonstration contrasting the timid speaker who huddles behind the podium (female) vs. the confident speaker (male) who through broad gestures and by moving out in front of the podium, claims more space.

Those of you familiar with fiddler crabs will recognize this ritualistic behavior (go here to see a video). The male crabs have an exaggerated claw that they wave at other males, presumably to say, "This is my spot and the rest of you better take notice!" The evolution of this very large claw emphasizes how important it must be for male success. Having larger appendages has its downside, however. Females can feed with both (small) claws, but males can only feed with their one smaller claw--and consequently, have to work much harder to get sufficient sustenance.

Seriously though, I'm not so sure how well emulating male behavior works for women. We seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to social behavior of scientists. Do we copy how males behave or do we stick with our own feminine ways and risk being judged as not very confident, or worse, not competent?


Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

The comparison to fiddler crabs is a riot. Though I think there's a distinction between huddling behind the podium looking nervous versus just standing there, looking relaxed. I've seen many a high-ranking male PI give a fantastic seminar without trotting around, but just looking at ease regardless of where they stand.

That's the killer, I think. I have to stop myself from rocking back and forth, so I'm sure I look a bit tense ("Don't rock, don't rock, don't rock....")

Really the only thing that helps is practice, in front of real audiences. And in the end I think some women don't seek out those opportunities (or aren't given them) as readily as men. That just compounds the problem that we don't tend to just fake it with bravado the way men do. Urgh.

Sadly, the reason I know that our competition is real is that we had a colleague alert us that he had just reviewed a manuscript similar to ours. Probably unethical (didn't feel like getting into that en blog) but the threat in this case, at least, is real. Unless they get rejected, which you can bet we're hoping on :)

Dr Wetland said...

I'm looking for pointers on how a woman fills the speaker space without waving hands and pacing back and forth in front of the room (as men do). I engage the audience by asking questions of the audience during my talk. I never stand behind the podium but I don't wave my hands around or pace when I am giving presentations. I find these behaviors in speakers to be distracting when I am in the audience.
There a a number of things that men do to put others (especially women) in their place during seminars. I recently asked a question at a seminar that challenged the speaker. After my question, he walked to the middle of room just behind where I was sitting, clearly as a way to be certain that I couldn't ask any more questions. (He wouldn't have seen my hand up if I attempted to ask another question because he was standing beside me).
Women could use this technique to avoid subsequent questions from members of the audience, so I was fascinated that the speaker had used this approach on me! At the same time, the people in the front of the room lost contact with the speaker and began to talk. So, as a speaking technique to avoid unpleasant members of the audience, standing next to the unwanted questioner would only work if the unwanted questioner were toward the front of the room.
Has anyone else experienced such behavior in speakers. Also, do you have any good speaking tactics to share?

Dr Wetland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DrDoyenne said...


Yes, I think the goal to shoot for is to have such a commanding presence (and message) that you do not have to resort to exaggerated physical movements to project confidence and/or your superiority when speaking to audiences.

I typically try to stand out in front of the podium (closer to the audience with no barriers between us), but do not move around much because it's distracting to the audience and I have enough trouble juggling the remote control and laser pointer and remembering what I need to say...

I do use some hand/arm movements, but not excessively and only to emphasize important points. There's a fine balance in this...yes, definitely takes practice. But as a mentor once told me, "It's not practice makes perfect. It's perfect practice that makes perfect."

Speaking of rocking, I saw a presentation recently during which the speaker (female) paced forward two steps and backward two steps throughout the entire talk. I had to stop watching because I was getting seasick...

Another nervous giveaway is shaky hands, a motion that becomes obvious to the audience whenever you use a laser pointer. This can be extremely distracting, with the audience often wondering whether you are suffering from some terminal nerve illness instead of listening to your message. People who suffer from this should not use pointers--there are other options.

Interestingly, men seem to suffer shaky hands more than women (at least that's my observation). They also tend to use "self-comforting" gestures such as jingling change in their pockets.

One trick I've learned is to always keep my body (and especially my hands) warm before I get up to speak. Feeling chilly temperature-wise enhances nervousness, and since most conference rooms are so cold you could store beef in them, it's a good idea to always have a sweater with you (you can take it off just before you get up to speak). I keep my hands tucked in pockets or under my legs until time to speak.

Eliminating all these nervous tics makes you look at ease, and if you seem to be at ease, so will your audience. I think people who are good at controlling their body language are especially successful speakers.

DrDoyenne said...

DrWetland: I've never seen that done before--walking past where a questioner is sitting to avoid further questions. Doesn't sound like a good idea, especially if you lose control of the audience.

I have seen speakers walk toward a questioner (I do this myself--mainly because I usually can't hear them well otherwise). Maybe some people might interpret this as an effort at intimidation--hovering over a questioner??

As I said in the previous post, women should strive to have a commanding presence without resorting to contrived strategies. I think this means that each person needs to "perform" in a way that reflects their personality and natural abilities (without the nervous tics), i.e., what works for me may not work for you.

The audience will pick up on any phony attempts to manipulate them and turn off (or worse, may heckle).

Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde said...

Re laser pointer, the best advice I ever heard was that if your hands are shaky, use both hands to hold the laser pointer rather than one. Two benefits: the shaking cancels out and your dot is steady; because it takes two hands you remember to turn the damn thing off and not keep circling it aimlessly around....

Anonymous said...

As an aquatic ecologist and I'm so excited to have found this blog! My two cents on giving talks. I do use my hands a lot when giving a talk - not too much roaming but I gesture. The truth is that's me - that's how I talk in my everyday life and I think it usually conveys my excitement about the work. I've gotten lots of praise for my conference/interview/seminar talks so I don't think it has counted negatively against me. I think one key for women may be to show people that you're enthusiastic and excited about your work (within the context of a well organized seminar delivered at a reasonable volume and pace), too formal or stiff makes you look nervous too. This may be especially the case in field sciences where there is a degree of greater informality in the conferences than (from what i can tell) in biomedical settings.

DrDoyenne said...


Welcome to the blog!

I think that you should use gestures as they reflect your natural personality and enthusiasm--most definitely.

If you try to fake it, people know immediately.