No question during your Q&A?

Have you ever wondered why people who are neither dumb nor blind become mute when the time comes for them to ask questions at the end of your presentation? The reasons are audience or presenter-related.

elephant in the room
Elephant in the room Ann Large Valentine Flickr.

AUDIENCE-RELATED

The Elephant in the Room. In some countries (Japan comes to mind), the attendees may consider impolite to talk before a more senior person in the room does ( a dean, an official,…). That person may just be there for moral support, politeness, or prestige, but not interest. Often unfamiliar with your topic, that person does not want to appear ignorant in front of the rest of the audience by asking an unprepared question. However, fear not, the questions will come as soon as that person fires the first question or leaves the room. Stick around outside the presentation room for a real Q&A.

The Shy Audience. Some people are as petrified to ask questions as the presenter is to present. They want to know more, but to leave their permafrost state, only the presenter’s warming smile, genuine openness and generous eye contact may take them out of that state. The audience needs body language to be encouraged to ask questions. Move towards the audience. And wait. Let the unbearable pressure of silence work its tongue loosening magic. But let that not be your tongue! It is the audience’s turn to speak.

The Proud or Discrete Audience. Some questions would reveal things about the questioner that the questioner does not wish the rest of the audience to know. They may reveal their lack of knowledge, ethics, of social skills, a speech impediment, a strong accent, or unsightly corporal features.  A one-to-one question after the talk is less intimidating. So make yourself available right after your talk.

The Inordinate Time to the First Question. The audience expects someone somewhere will ask a question. It usually comes from center front, rarely from the sides. If the first question does not come within a time collectively felt as being reasonable (the smaller the audience, the smaller that time), the audience draws negative vibes from the continued silence which it turns into a sanction and a blame. By then, even the ones who were going to ask a question given a little more time, give up and leave since other people have already started to leave the room. Talk to the chair of your session before your talk. He or she may be encouraged to ask the first question.

PRESENTER-RELATED

The Unquestionable.  Things you said may be so obvious and clear that nothing you said raised question. Your presentation may not have been bad, but it probably was not useful. The facts you presented were unquestionable. because they were too well-known. They lacked novel significance or implication statements. They were presented from a classic, unoriginal point of view.

The Unknowledgeable. Some things you said during your presentation are blatantly wrong, and the audience is knowledgeable enough to know it. They could attack you, but in the process, would embarrass you. So they simply stay quiet, and leave. They were there to learn for an expert. You were not that person.

The Arrogant. Alas, some presenters have a knack to make the audience feel out of place. They mention their elitist friends during the talk, say several times that only a minority of people are smart enough to understand the problem. And by the time the talk ends, you know you are part of the majority. They cocooned themselves away from any potential question. Withdrawn, stern face turned away from the audience as they gather their makeshift notes, their body language clearly communicate they have no inclination to answer any question.

The Vanishing. WAIT! Do not do your disappearing act, immediately closing any opportunity for questions with a lame statement like “I must have been very clear since you have no question”, and rushing off stage.

The Jargonaute. The jargonaute’s talk is for people from planet science. Unfathomable, undecipherable, impenetrable, it is not of our world. As minutes pass by, the audience discovers that an abyss of ignorance separates it from the jargonaute. People want pebbles of knowledge, not kryptonite. No question the jargonaute is an expert. No question!

Anxiety: the sum of all your fears

Flickr. Neil.Moralee

 

Fearful speaking in front of others?

First find out the reason why you are nervous. Then get rid of that reason.

Here is a catalog of the possible reasons, and remember, more than one reason may apply: anxiety is the sum of all your fears.

  • Fear of not being prepared. you had too little time to get ready, you rushed through the preparation, you had no time to rehearse. you finished your slides the morning of the event and you don’t remember how many layers are on some slides so you have to look at them to know when the slide changes, etc…  There is no substitute for preparation.  It encompasses so much more than rehearsing (Presentation traps 9 – the rehearsal traps). You can’t wing it, Mr Icarus, because the heat of the moment will burn the wax that loosely ties your wings to your body. Sorry.
  • Fear of being the center of attention. Of course you are. They came to you because you have something they need. That’s why they are looking at you. So please, turn your marine binoculars around a second, what do you see? People have  shrunk to a size where you can see them all. They are all in the same boat. You’re the captain of the boat and they are your passengers. They have boarded your ship, and they will disembark after your talk. They are your temporary guests and you want to make sure they enjoy the journey. Show you are worth your stripes, and beam that captain smile of yours to inspire confidence in you. You know how to behave like a host, don’t you? Surely you have hosted friends and colleagues at home. Behave like a host, whose relaxed attitude comes from expertise and preparedness.
  • Fear of being evaluated by boss, peers, or subordinates. So your boss and employees are in the room attending your talk. Is that why you have to behave like Wonder Woman or Superman? The way you see it, any fragility will be a subject of later mockery. Any error will topple the statuesque figure you have worked so much to hoist onto the pedestal. But the Superman costume only fits Christopher Reeve. And the Wonder Woman suit was tailored for Linda Carter, so leave it on the rack. You are frail, you are human, you may make mistakes, but the stress caused by the acute awareness of potential mistakes brings on fear more surely than losing the jackpot. Get your boss and your employees out of your system. For example, rehearse in front of them prior to your talk. Involve them in the process. They will learn that you have gone through great pains to make your presentation a success, and they probably will give you useful feedback in the process. Otherwise, any mistake in your talk will make you crash and burn, never to regain your composure. And by the way, these mistakes you think all have surely noticed, they have probably gone unnoticed.  So there is no need to point them out during your talk!
  • Fear of loosing too much if you fail. Money, career, prestige, you name your poison. For it is your poison if it is so addictive that you turn to excipients to boost your confidence, or you let your fear pay allegiance to these monsters. Remember the book of Ecclesiastes: it is all vanity, and vanity is for the bonfire.
  • Fear of looking awful. Yes you do look awful… if you say so, since, as Pascal pointed out, “The perceptions of our senses are always right”. So what? Has your science anything to do with the length of your nose? The buckling of your legs? The gap in your teeth? The color of your shoes? The size of your belt? Is the audience attending your talk with the specific intent to be repulsed because your reputation as a frankenstein exceeds that of Boris Karloff? So stop that nonsense and focus on your objective of helping others with their scientific problems. Do not focus on self-perceived crimes against the self-perceived canons of prettiness or handsomeness, because, besides grooming, there is nothing you can do to improve your native look, but there is much you can do to make yourself attractive to others by your scientific talent and expertise.
  • Fear of questions. I see. You fear not having a ready answer, or a convincing answer. Yet you did the research, the audience did not. You conducted the experiments, chose the most adequate methods, carefully selected the data. From the data, you analytically excised the supportive evidence that warrants your conclusions, and you tentatively proposed your inner convictions in gut-spilling tables and figures. The audience did not. And if some questions seek yes or no statements, it is not to trick you; it often is to assess the usefulness of your findings and how well they would apply to people’s problems. In a way, their questions invite you to their research turf. If you work on the same turf, your fears are groundless. You are the expert. If their turf is different, you simply do not know. And it is fine to say so without feeling embarrassed. Scientific embarrassment is being caught cheating, or not being able to justify choices (data, method, or conclusions). Only then, is there reason to be afraid of questions. But since you are fully accountable, it is not the case for you. So any fear is misguided, particularly the unreasonable fear of having to say “I don’t know”. Next time you have to say “I don’t know”, finish that sentence with what you do know that is related to the question with something like “This we don’t know; However, we do know that…“. You will be seen as helpful instead of ignorant.

In conclusion, analyze your fear. You will learn much about yourself and, with that, you will find the way to master your nerves.