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Asking and answering questions at seminars

In our lab meeting this week we practise asking and answering questions or seminars. Asking well framed questions at seminars takes practise so after a discussion of different styles of question we practised asking each other mock questions. We also practised answering difficult questions. I strongly encourage my students to ask questions at seminars, they are an important aspect of scientific dialogue, but it can take some practice.

In this blog I describe some of the key discussion points and things we learned.

Asking good questions

We first discussed some of the different types of questions the team had observed at seminars.

Many felt that a good question should be an actual genial question about the science that was presented. Some of the lab members related times they had heard ‘questions’ which were actually comments or comments shallowly framed as questions. Sometimes the person in the audience just wants to talk about their own work. If that is the case, they should wait till their own seminar or leave the point for discussion after the seminar rather than stating it in the presenter’s question time.

A style of question that can be difficult for the presenter to interpret is when the questioner is unsure of their question, so they speak to figure out what their actual question is. One lab member had noticed that people taking notes during seminars tended to have better frame questions. So taking notes can help you come up with a clearer question.

Good questions often start with a compliment to this presenter will stop this helps put the presenter at ease, especially if it’s a difficult question that they might feel defensive about.

e.g. “That was a very clear explanation of how dentrification operates in mangroves thankyou. I wonder though how much error there is in denitrification measurements made using the isotope method and if these errors could affect your conclusion that denitrification rates are greater in mangroves than other coastal wetlands?”

A compliment that contains a short amount of context about the question can also help jog both the presenter and the audience’s minds about which aspect of the presentation this question relates to.

Another style of question that some team members have enjoyed our questions that suggests you directions of research.

e.g. “I didn’t realize mangroves could remove nitrogen pollution from the water, I wonder if we could also apply your methods to measure nitrogen mitigation in seagrass meadows?”

Lab members also related bad questions they had heard, including questions that were about the presenter’s personal appearance or other aspects that didn’t relate to the science they were presenting.

Another style of questioning that can come off badly is to doggedly pursue the same question over and over. One example was a presenter that was questioned on the robustness of the t-tests they had used. The presenter answered that they were the correct method, however the audience member kept following up with more and more questions insisting that the t-tests were incorrectly applied. It became clear that the presenter didn’t have sufficient expertise to answer these statistical questions. In such a situation it would have been more appropriate for the questioner to discuss it further with the presenter after the seminar finished.

Responding to difficult questions

We also practised asking difficult questions of each other and answering those.

Some tips for difficult questions include thanking the questioner and asking to discuss the topic later after the seminar. For a question you’re not sure about you could admit that you’re not sure about the answer and offer to look into it and follow up with the questioner later on.

What you should avoid is trying to dodge a question you don’t know the answer to. It will be obvious to the audience that you are bullshitting.

It’s important to remember that we are scientists not politicians. This means we don’t have to know everything, we are allowed to be wrong and we allowed to change our minds in the face of new evidence. So if someone points out a legitimate flaw in your research during question time you’re allowed to agree with them. In fact, the sign of a good scientist is that they know the limits of their own knowledge.

Responding to difficult questions, especially questions that catch you off guard or sound antagonistic, takes practise. So I recommend you doing a mock ‘questions time’ that includes some tough questions, with your colleagues or lab group so you can practice.

For instance, one mock question I asked one lab member about their work with an industry partner was along the lines of an accusation: “your work is just helping this industry green-wash their dirty operations”. He answered: “In our work we are engaging with stakeholders on all sides of this contentious issue. The scientific process is helping improve the transparency of industry operations and create a dialogue between different sides. “

Coming up with well-framed answers to difficult questions can take thought, so it is worth practising for your specific topic.

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