Buy your way out of troublesome questions

Preempt. Nice verb, but little used. It is composed of two parts: “pre” which means “before”, and “empt” which comes from the latin “emere” –  “to buy”. In essence, to prempt is to buy your way out of a potentially difficult situation before it has a chance to happen.

What is there to preempt when you present?

1) The embarrassment to have to admit that you are not the expert the audience thought you were

If you have been asked to present on behalf of the first author, chances are, that during the Q&A, you will get expert questions only the first author (not you) could answer. Naturally, you should have turned down the invitation to be a substitute, but you may not have had the choice, or you may have found the invitation to attend that conference in sunny Hawaii, just too tempting! It is best to preempt such expert questions by warning the audience prior to the q&a session that you are not the first author, and that there could be questions you might not be able to answer immediately. Of course, as its name indicates, such a preemptive move has a cost: you will not be considered an expert, and networking with experts will be limited. But it is far better to honestly set the expectations than to have to face experts noisily expressing their disappointment towards your lack of in-depth knowledge, live, in front of your audience.

2) The embarrassment to have to admit that your contribution cannot immediately solve people’s real problems

Often times, you are presenting mouth-watering research, at least in terms of potential, but it is based on modelling, or it is still at the proof of concept stage. During the Q&A, questions abound on the significance of your work, or on its manufacturing or marketability. All your answers end up sounding like “we haven’t done that yet”, “we’re looking into it”, or “this is yet to be determined.” The audience is disappointed. Your title seemed to indicate the contribution was real and had already gone beyond the experimental stage, but it was a pipe dream. Therefore, preempt such misconceptions. Set up the scope, the exact nature of your accomplishments up-front in your talk. That way, the audience will not have the wrong expectations. During your conclusion, honestly announce what are the next steps necessary to take your contribution closer to a real tangible product or application. As in the previous case, this preemptive move has a cost. It might deflate the enthusiasm of a few people in the audience, but preemting is better than to have to minimise the impact of your work during the q&a.

Author: Jean-Luc Lebrun

This century: Writer on Scientific writing skills and scientific presentation skills, MC for scientific events, Podcaster, Radio Consultant, Trainer for Research Institutes in Engineering and Life Sciences, Singapore, and in European doctoral schools, as well as in South East Asia Universities.
Last Century: Apple Computer, Advanced Technology Group, Technology Information manager. Then Director of the Apple-ISS Research Centre – a joint venture between Apple Computer and the National University of Singapore. Producer of TV program on IT for Singapore Channel 5.

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