I received a request via Twitter DM this weekend.
Have u any tips on academic speaking eg @ q & a time @ conferences. How can I gain confidence and speak with conviction in the face of criticism?
As it happens I do have thoughts on this.
Critical ≠ negative
Criticism is one of the main modes of engagement in academia. Done well, criticism is about developing and improving the work. Or, engaging the work to generate new knowledge.
Heck, literary scholars call their whole mode of scholarship “literary criticism”. That doesn’t mean they spend their days ripping apart novels and calling them rubbish. It means they engage seriously with works of literature, bringing them into conversation with other literary works, theories, other forms of scholarship, etc.
The point of presenting at a conference is to engage in conversation about your ideas. Sometimes that conversation really pushes you. The goal is to be challenged in a good way.
It’s not about you
Focus on the work. Even if there are serious flaws in the paper, it doesn’t mean there are serious flaws in you, the person.
Your paper might need work. Your paper might benefit from reading something you haven’t read. Your paper might benefit from further attention to one of the analytic points. Your paper might benefit from checking more sources, interviewing more people, or doing another statistical test.
You are just fine.
Invite the questions and critique that you want
A conference presentation is, by definition, a work in progress. You give a presentation in order to test your ideas.
Before your presentation think about what kind of engagement you would like. Try to structure your presentation to invite those kinds of comments and questions that will help you develop the paper.
Make those questions obvious. Ask the audience for particular kinds of feedback in your conclusion. (This also enables you to redirect questions to those topics in the rare instance that things get out of hand.)
This sounds silly but too often we don’t stop and think before responding to a question. The time it takes to take a deep breath and think about how you will respond feels, to you, like an extended awkward silence.
It does not feel long to the audience.
Taking a breath and thinking about the question before responding (even make a couple of brief notes) indicates to the audience that you take their questions seriously. You are not just going through the motions. People respect that.
Respect the time and format limitations
The organization of conferences doesn’t usually offer time to really get into a good discussion about a paper. You are part of a panel. The question time needs to be divided fairly. Quick questions of clarification are easier to accommodate than genuine engagement.
There are spaces where you can extend the conversation: lunch, coffee, dinner, beer, staying up until 3 in the morning in the hotel lobby, extended e-mail conversations after you go home …
If someone raises a genuinely interesting point that requires more thought and more time, thank them and invite them (and anyone else in the room who is interested) to pursue the question further later. Not a vague later that seems dismissive, a real later. Something like “That is a really interesting point. I don’t want to dominate this short session with a discussion of that. Perhaps we could have lunch together to continue the discussion. Anyone else like to join us?”
If you are attacked
In the rare instance where someone does attack you, it is not about you. It’s about them. Their power trip. Their insecurity about their own work on this topic that your paper is throwing into question. Some other thing that you can’t even begin to imagine.
Don’t act like prey*.
I have sheep and chickens. They are prey. They act like prey at the slightest provocation. This only encourages predators to chase them.
Breathe. Respond to a substantive point if you can spot one (or imagine one). Thank them for pointing out … Focus on the work.
Most importantly, do not let the attacker dominate the session. Move on to the next question, engaging the panel chair if necessary. Play your part in maintaining a safe environment for others in the audience to ask questions.
*HT to Margaret Atwood who used this statement in a presentation about the digital threat to publishing that circulated widely on the internet.
Havi Brooks’ Alignment Exercise