strategies for surviving trials

Laura A. Cox LCOX at
Fri Jul 10 01:00:26 EST 1998

>Susan Forsburg wrote:

>1) practise any talk over and over with sympathetic colleagues.  Make sure
>that they will ask you questions about anything unclear!  This can
>be very useful as a "heads up" for places where you need better
>descriptions, or a way to prepare for some obvious questions.
>Have your friends role-play asking mean questions so that you are
>ready for them.   And remember, answering an obvious question or
> two for which you are prepared
>can really get you into the rhythm of answering more.  Sometimes
>it is worth leaving something out so that you will get it as the
>first quesiton--a gimme.
>2) If someone asks you a question, and you feel like a deer in the
>headlights, wait!  Catch your breath.  Take a drink of water (which
>is why it is there--a great delayer.  ;-).  Think of what they said
>and remember you know more than they do about what you are doing.
>Take your time to think of your answer--don't jump too fast.  Remember
>that any pause seems MUCH longer to you than to the audience.  If
>necessary, ask them to clarify.
>3) if you still haven't got their answer, and they are tenacious,
>smile and say something to diffuse them:  "we should disucss
>that afterwards", or "that's  a good point, and we're working on
>that now".
>4) If you can't answer their question, and you can't put them off,
>then answer another question--that is, answer a related question that they
>DIDN'T ask.  This is a more subtle method but can often diffuse an
>aggressive questioner.
>5) Don't be afraid to deflect them with a mild joke and move on.  Stay
>calm, and remember that they are probably a jerk and everyone knows
>it.  The rest of the audience is on YOUR side.
>There, five tried-by-fire hints for surviving the lions' den!

This is.excellent advise. I thought I would add a subsection to #1:
Practice answering the questions clearly and confidently. During graduate
school, I found that students who answered questions with confidence were
then treated with some respect and additional questions from faculty
members were objective and less aggressive in delivery. This is true even
if your are saying that you don't know the answer. One of my felllow
graduate students knew the intricate details of her research project. Our
projects overlapped a bit so we would get some of the same types of
questions regarding the basic biology of the system. I was able to deliver
answers with confidence and the questions moved on to other matters. My lab
mate would give the same answers, yet hesitate when she did so. The faculty
did not believe her answers and did not believe that she knew the answers.
Consequently, the faculty would become more in more aggressive asking
questions and questioning the answers.

And a comment about aggressive/tenacious questioners. I gave a talk at a
national meeting last year. One of the questioners asked what is currently
an unanswerable question (and he has been studying this subject for many
years, so he also knew this). I tried to make light of the question, make a
small joke, but he persisted. I reiterated that many of us would like to
know the answer, and I could definitely speculate on possiblities. No, and
he still persisted. The co-chairs of the session even tried to get him to
back off (so I knew that someone was on my side). He refused. I managed to
maintain a sense of humor, but I couldn't get past this questioner and his
question. So that's how the question/answer session ended. Well after the
talk, this scientist spoke with the P.I. I'm working with on this project.
He told my P.I. what a great talk I gave and how he was very interested in
the data. It was as if this bizarre "questioning" dual never happened.If
the questioner had not discussed the talk/research project with my P.I., I
would never have known that he thought it was a good talk. That news didn't
help me during the questions, but it was a good example of why you need to
retain your composure, appear confident (even if you don't feel it), and
remember that you know more about your work than anyone else.Treat these
situations as a challenges. I don't feel as though I won that one, but it
was unwinable, and I didn't lose.

Laura Cox

Laura Cox, Ph.D.
Department of Genetics
Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research
PO Box 760549
San Antonio, TX 78245-0549

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