Post-presentation shutdown and the art of question time

Professor Lesley Head.

Professor Lesley Head.

You’ve nailed the presentation. Structured it well. Timed it just right. No powerpoint stuff-ups. You’re pretty sure you had most of the audience with you. You draw breath and take a glass of water. Your brain relaxes.

But wait, there’s question time, and if you’re lucky, a chance for extended discussion. Just as your brain relaxes, you need it to function more than ever, and fast.

For those of us who prefer to do our thinking slowly, the challenges of question time are many.

There’s the sermoniser. Almost invariably male, this person feels the need to launch forth on his own thinking on this topic. After several minutes you are wondering both, ‘why didn’t he present a paper himself?’ and ‘is there a question here?’ In its most annoying form the sermoniser, having an opinion on and having researched everything, will try to do this after every presentation. If the chair is not strong enough to cut him off, you have to summon the energy to do it yourself. You are out the front. Just start talking over him.

There’s the groper. Enormously provoked and stimulated by your presentation, they are groping for a question but can’t yet quite articulate it. There are important ideas in the ether, but they can’t quite capture them. I have enormous sympathy for the groper, being one myself. And you can be sure that many of the audience are also silent gropers – if you’re lucky they will approach you afterwards so you can grope together out of the public glare. While you’re in the spotlight you can do little more than try to meet them halfway.

And there’s the lightbulb. The lightbulb takes various forms. It captures something you hadn’t quite captured. It probes the weakness you knew was there, and offers new insight. It is the, ‘shit, why didn’t I think of that?’ moment. Or it sparks some completely new perspective for you. The lightbulb is a wonderful resource and you can only thank it.

Discussion time is much enhanced by a strong and skilled chair, and by generosity and openness from all parties. It’s easy enough to get through this period – if you don’t know what to say, offer to follow up the discussion later.

But you still might forget the lightbulb comments. The lightbulb may have come disguised as the sermoniser or the groper. What if your shutting-down state blocked a really important idea? What if the groper is a potential research collaborator on a great new theme?

If extended discussion is on the cards, I have developed the habit of asking a colleague to take notes for me. It helps me to relax and be more present in the engagement if I am not simultaneously trying to remember everything I am being asked.

This week PhD student Justin Westgate was kind enough to do so after my presentation at the Unnatural Futures Conference at the University of Tasmania. Where I knew the questioner, I can associate his notes with particular people, and now follow up on email. I am reminded in the notes that several people referred to authors I should pursue.

In Justin’s half page of notes on the sermoniser I can see that there is only a single question mark. But it is actually quite an interesting question that I should ponder further. Justin has been able to capture the questions of several gropers in ways that turn them into lightbulbs. And there are lightbulbs all over the place when different questioners cross-reference one another.

It’s only a couple of pages of scribble torn out of his notebook. But it’s a great resource that adds value to my conference experience. It allows me to combat post-presentation shutdown with ongoing dialogue and engagement. Thanks Justin!

Professor Lesley Head is the Director of The Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research. If you liked this post then you might enjoy Know yourself and pace yourself – some thoughts on the temporalities of academic writing. You can follow Lesley on Twitter @ProfLesleyHead.

2 thoughts on “Post-presentation shutdown and the art of question time

  1. What a great post! Some really good advice here – particularly the one about asking someone else to take notes – seems like that’s a way of helping you listen to what the questioner is saying, rather than trying to remember everything they say so you don’t lose it for future reference. I think having a good chair is really important. As a speaker I personally wouldn’t interupt the sermoniser because eventually they will run out of steam, and the rest of the audience gets restless, and somehow, to interupt could make me look like the one trying to dominate, even when that’s not the case. I always try to have the last slide of my presentation as the ‘here’s how to contact me’ page, so that those people who don’t feel comfortable asking questions, or think about them afterwards, can easily make a note of how to get in touch. Thanks again for your post.

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