Thursday, July 22, 2010

How to Deal with Aggressive Questions During Presentations

The final topic in this series on presentations is dealing with questions.  This is the part of the presentation experience that people fear the most--or feel they handle poorly.  Part of the reason is that while we are delivering our talk, we have control over things.  We know what is coming next in each slide, and we've planned carefully what to say.  However, when the audience is invited to participate, then we are no longer in complete control.  We don't know what to expect precisely.  Sometimes, we can anticipate questions, but often get questions that are rambling, incoherent, aggressive, or difficult to answer. We are basically put on the spot, but are expected to respond calmly and authoritatively.  Dealing with different types of questions may require a slightly different approach, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

First off, listen carefully to the question and make sure you understand what is being asked before answering.  If you are having trouble hearing or understanding the person, move closer to them if possible and ask them to repeat the question. You might also want to repeat the question if the audience was unable to hear it.

Second, you want to remain poised and respectful of your questioner and avoid any judgmental, annoyed, or defensive body language.

The latter point is especially important if you get an aggressive question--one that is clearly challenging your work or even a personal attack.  How do you handle a challenging or aggressive question?  Basically, your goal is to defuse the situation.  Do not act aggressively or defensively or try to invalidate your questioner.  This is difficult, I know, but if you can remain respectful, it will make your questioner look even worse than if you attack them.  What you then want to do is turn their negative question or statement around and restate it in a more positive or neutral way.  Focus in on the key words or phrases that they use.

Here is an example of an aggressive question (the negative words are highlighted in red, key words to reuse are in bold):

"That was an interesting presentation, but you failed to discuss how your experimental treatments might affect this plant community in the long-run or explain the exact mechanism that led to the changes you observed. I'm wondering why you've ignored such important issues."

Here is a possible response that rephrases the question in a neutral way:

"My presentation today focused on community shifts in response to key factors important in this system.  I am continuing this research in another study that is looking at these and other factors in an effort to track long-term responses and to identify key mechanisms, but that work is not complete. I hope to report on those findings in the near future."

Note that the response contains no defensive or aggressive language.  It is neutral and simply restates what the speaker presented and what the speaker is currently working on (and is not yet ready to discuss).  The negative, challenging words (failed, ignored) are addressed indirectly by saying that the important issues raised by the questioner have not been ignored because they are being investigated in an on-going study.  The response also re-uses two key words from the question (long-run, mechanism), which further adds to the impression that you've previously considered these important points and are addressing them with follow-up study.  Finally, by pointing out that your work is incomplete and that you hope to reveal those findings in the future tells the questioner and the audience that you are on top of the issue, but are not prepared to reveal your results just yet.

Almost as difficult to handle is the rambling question or statement, especially one that clearly is off-track and made by someone unfamiliar with the topic of your talk.  You should be humble enough to recognize that if someone is confused about something in your talk, it's probably because you failed to explain it adequately.  In your response, you can say that perhaps you did not make that clear in your description or that you did not include that information because it is a well-known procedure.  Then proceed to give a brief explanation. If the questioner persists in asking about a well-known technique or concept, then suggest that you talk with them at the break. The audience will recognize that you are trying to spare the questioner any embarrassment and will appreciate your actions.

As in most of the previous posts on this topic, your goal as the speaker is to put your audience at ease and to leave them with a good impression of you and your skills as a speaker and scientist.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

I disagree totally with your advice. When dealing with a disingenuous aggressive grandstanding questioner, the speaker should exploit her position of power to make the questioner look foolish and uninformed. You do this by not even addressing the question and making it clear to the audience that the questioner is misunderstanding your point, and stating that rather than take up the time of the entire audience helping the questioner to overcome his misconceptions, you would be happy to help him afterwards.

Anonymous said...

I agree with CPP, but that method only works after months and even years of building up to a splitsecond instinct response that holds your position and dismisses the asshole. I've seen women go that route, but they got flustered mid-stride and bonked it, and I've done this myself (one such incident was broadcast across an R1 webinar. not. good.) Only after watching seasoned women go for the jugulars multiple times in different ways, did it click for me. I am no longer afraid. It's the difference between butchering it or making a nice neat fine cut with a pretty bow around the crap. And the skill comes after you are no longer shocked on a gut level at assholery. You come to expect it, anticipate it, and have responses built up in your arsenal.

Al Dove said...

Try a Block and Bridge, it's a standard method for not answering an aggressive question and instead returning to your talking points