Engaging With Presentations + Asking Questions

Lief Parsons
Lief Parsons

Academia of course involves a lot of reading and writing of texts — and, in praxis-based or creative fields, the making of mediated and/or physical objects or structures. These are the myriad forms in which we “create knowledge” and communicate with one another. We also produce events — opportunities for a few, or a lot, of interesting, potentially like-minded people to get together in a (physical or virtual) space to share ideas, get feedback, tell lame inside jokes, and discuss the evolution of the field. These practices certainly aren’t specific to the academy; they’re common in various professional fields, in the art and media worlds, etc. So, learning how to navigate this terrain in one realm — in the academic public lecture, or the professional networking event, or the political conference — can prove useful in the others.

Let’s think about the live presentation — the guest lecture, the conference presentation, the screening-and-discussion of one’s work — as a medium in its own right, and consider how to best exploit this particular modality of communication. How do we get the most out of this experience? The lecture series or conference is like an “edited collection” of established and emerging voices in your field. It affords you an opportunity to meet some of the key figures working in your field-at-large, and to discover exciting work that’s happening on the periphery. Not all of this work will immediately be of obvious relevance or interest to you — but it’s important to be open to surprises: to leave open the possibility that the presenter might help you recognize interests you never knew you had, or she might introduce you to a concept or theorist or method that could prove useful in your own very different work. Plus, it’s important — both for the sake of your own well-roundedness, and for the sake of being a genuinely curious, interesting, interested, generous, and courteous person — to be generally interested in the breadth of your field. All of it. (See Austin Kleon on “how to make yourself a more interesting person.”)

Besides, you never know when something that’s seemingly irrelevant today becomes relevant for a future project. This happens way more often than you might imagine.

Lief Parsons
Lief Parsons

So, what to expect of this presentation medium? Some presenters might simply read a paper they’ve written in advance — which might seem a bit silly: why do we need to have a paper read to us? What might we gain from such an experience? We might similarly ask, why do we go to poetry or book readings, or to live musical performances? Why not just read the book, or listen to the recording? Why indeed. We’ll get back to that.

Other presenters might be more informal and extemporaneous, offering insight and frank discussion — and, if you’re lucky, comedic interludes — that you might not get in any other context. The entertainment value here might be more obvious — but in all cases, there’s much to be gained from the presentation-as-medium.

First, who knows if we’ll ever get around to reading that paper that’s being read to us — so, at the very least, the presentation gives us an opportunity to expose ourselves to ideas we might not have time to encounter on our own time. You might then get a better sense of whether or not you want to make time to dig into this person’s larger body of work. Second, we might get a sense of the personality of the presenters — and thus of their work — through the live presentation. Seeing and hearing and being in the presence of the person behind the ideas reminds us that the work of academia is affective and embodied — not reified, depersonalized theoretical products and creative objects, but the makings of flesh-and-blood human beings with feelings, dammit! We can better contextualize many of these ideas when we know from whence they came. Third, the presenter might extemporize around his or her talk, offering illuminating parenthetical asides, or insight into how she conceived of her project or circumnavigated obstacles and frustrations, or how she marshaled various forms of support to bring this project through to fruition. We might get a sense of the biography of the project. Fourth, we can ask questions! More about this later. Fifth, we have a chance to meet new people — to introduce ourselves, establish connections, forge new alliances, and maybe plant seeds for future collaborations.

There are plenty of other affordances of the live-presentation-as-medium, but we’ll leave it here.

What are the values of the group event: the academic conference or professional gathering? Well, it might be the one time of the year — or of a lifetime — that every individual working in your field, or every person on the planet who shares your esoteric interest in [fill in the blank], can get together in one space and hang out and geek out for a while. The gathering as a whole also gives you a sense of the breadth and boundaries of your field. It gives you a chance to ask questions — and to continue those post-Q&A discussions into the reception hour, or over dinner, or via a post-event email exchange.

Being Engaged

In order to fully exploit the social benefits of these events — and, seriously, in order to take full advantage the opportunity to enlighten yourself (isn’t that why you’re in school?) — you need to engage. How? These might be new and intimidating experiences for you, and you might be reluctant to put yourself out there. Or maybe you have a really hard time keeping your hands off your damn phone and potentially missing your BFFs’ FB status updates — so listening to somebody present a brilliantly woven, compellingly illustrated argument for 45 minutes is just soooo harrrddd. Believe me: you can do it.

  • Pay attention. Be interested — which is predicated in part on being interestingWant to know your field. Be a curious person. Some people live-tweet the presentations they attend (both for their own benefit, and for the benefit of those colleagues who can’t be present) or take notes. Others listen un-distractedly. Do whatever you need to do to attempt to follow through with the speaker from beginning to end.
  • It’s okay to be egocentric. Daniel Cosley recommends that you ask yourself “what’s in it for me?” Even if the specific topic isn’t something you’re naturally inclined to enjoy, keep and eye or ear out (as I recommended earlier) for concepts, frameworks, methods, tools, or references that could be of use to you. Consider how your own work could build on the presenter’s work. With this approach, “almost any talk or topic is interesting,” Cosley says, “even if I have to do translation work to connect topic X to my own interests.”
  • Take notes on things you don’t understand, too. These jottings might inspire you to seek clarification, by asking a question, at the end.
  • Ask questions, and thereby show appreciation for the presenter’s work and the time she took to come and share that work with you. As Crosley says, “Asking a question says ‘I cared enough about your work to think hard about it.'” Computer scientist Gregory Abowd echoes this sentiment:

We are a community and the more we get to know each other, the more we should begin to behave like caring friends and family. By that I mean we should be able to speak frankly and constructively with each other in an attempt to make each of us better at what we do…. If we could develop more of a feeling…that we are not competitors as much as we are collaborators seeking some common goals, and that someone else’s success is somehow our own success, then I think you would see more people trying to make others’ work better through discussion.

New Yorker, October 4, 2010
New Yorker, October 4, 2010

Now, how to ask a good question?

  • Take notes during the talk — particularly of questions you’d like to ask at the end.
  • When you’re called on, introduce yourself, and say what you do and where you’re from. Again, if we’re to think of these gatherings as “community” events, it’s nice to get to know one another. And if someone especially likes what you have to say, he or she will likely feel more comfortable approaching or contacting you afterward. Or acknowledging you at the next event.
  • Be clear and concise.
  • Philosopher Guy Longworth enumerates the types of questions you might want to ask. His list includes:
    • The question of clarification. E.g., “I wonder if you could say a little more about…”
    • The counterexample. E.g., “If I understood you correctly, you said X. But suppose Y. Wouldn’t that be a counterexample to X?”…
    • The additional case. E.g., “If your proposal is viable, one would expect it to cover Y. Do you think that’s right? And if you do, I wonder if you could say something about how your account does cover Y [optional: because there would appear to be the following difficulties].”…
    • The support. E.g., “I wonder whether it might be helpful to consider X in developing your case…”
  • Crosley has some recommendations, too:
    • “It’s okay to ask hard questions, and asking good questions can help you be more visible, but don’t ask a question just to demonstrate that you’re smart. We’re all smart.”
    • It’s okay to introduce your own interests and work, particularly if they might open up the discussion. But “don’t make the question about you. Some questions are thinly disguised opinion pieces and/or self-promotion…. If you’re taking the ideas into your domain, help bring them back out for the speaker and the audience so they make sense.
    • “On question style, be more like an interviewer than a lawyer. Lawyers often ask yes-no questions, leading questions, and questions where they already know the answer. Usually, those lead to boring answers. So do questions where the answer is likely to be about details that are in the paper but that (probably correctly) got left out of the talk for space. Instead, shootfor more open-ended questions that give the speaker room and context to breathe and be creative.”
      • Fast Company’s Shane Snow points out that “Questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” have high probability of thoughtful responses, whereas those that begin with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” can limit your answers.” Also: “don’t fish.”
  • Listen for explicit or implicit questions the speaker poses, but doesn’t answer. Can you answer them? If not, ask.
  • Think about the larger frameworks within which the presentation resides, or the larger issues it points to. Ask questions that encourage the presenter to connect his or her work to this broader universe, to extrapolate and abstract.
  • Even if you disagree with the presenter, or feel compelled to point out an error or weakness in the presentation, make sure to do so in a polite, constructive way. Try reframing your critique as a question: “Given that lots of other scholars, like X, Y, and Z, take a different approach, I’m wondering how you came to the conclusion that….” If you don’t get the point of the presentation at all, rather than saying so, ask the presenter to “clarify” the bits you did get — or to explain the overarching motivations for his or her work.
  • If there’s more than one presentation — if, for example, we’re talking about a panel of presenters — you can tease out threads that connect or dissociate the various presentations from one another.
  • Pose your question not only to the presenter, but to everyone in the room. Encourage the presenter to respond first, but then give her the freedom to draw on the collective intelligence of everyone in attendance.
  • Don’t be afraid of showing weakness or ignorance. It takes obvious confidence to comfortably admit what one doesn’t know or understand, and what one needs clarified. Again, Abowd: “When I ask a question, it’s not about having someone else think I am smart. It is about trying to make me smarter about something I might not completely understand.” And your question will likely have the effect of making smarter all the other people in attendance, too.

*   *   *   *   *

Daniel Cosley, “On Asking Questions and Academic Love” Lightly Filtered (February 18, 2013).

Going in for the Kill” Science Professor (November 9, 2011).

Austin Kleon, “Have You Tried Making Yourself a More Interesting Person?Austin Kleon (October 21, 2015).

Guy Longworth, “Asking Questions” Guy Longworth (December 9, 2013).

Shane Snow, “The One Conversational Tool that Will Make You Better at Absolutely Everything” Fast Company (December 17, 2012).

Edison Thomaz, “Asking Good Questions at Conferences” Edison Thomaz (October 1, 2012).

George Washington University, “The Art of Asking Questions” GW University Writing and Research Conference.

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