Thursday, December 21, 2006

Speaker/audience fencing match: victory for MsPhD.

First, an aside to a commenter:

I read lots of blogs where people write about their friends and co-workers using made-up names. Profgrrrl does this all the time. I guess the fact that someone wrote in to complain about me doing this says something about the readership of this blog vs. others that are more personal-journal in style.

Anyway, the topic for today is a combination of personal and professional, like most of what I write about here.

Wait, another random aside:

Anyone else being tortured by all the holiday goodies? Right now I hear cookies calling my name...

Okay I'm really starting now. I swear.

A few years ago I gave a talk and there were a couple of people in the audience who were really trying to skewer me. And I was totally unprepared for anyone to do that, because at the time I hadn't given a talk in a while.

Because I was totally unprepared for this kind of hostile reception, I got defensive and upset and generally didn't take it as an opportunity to show off how much I know, because I was too flustered.

But I was prepared this time.

And it went SO much better.

In fact, since then I've had the opportunity to observe these people, and I have learned a few things:

1- They treat EVERYONE this way, not just me.

2- They are frequently wrong. And since they're so opinionated and so stubborn, they often dig themselves in pretty deep. So then we're not talking about slightly wrong, because by the time they're done elaborating, they are very wrong.

3- They actually know less than I do, but they try to sound like they already know more than anyone ever could.

So when the 'questions' (this is a euphemism) came from that corner of the room, I was prepared.

I was SO prepared.

I took the questions very seriously. I took a deep breath. I fixed this person with a quizzical look, and.... asked a few questions about the 'question'.

I'll call it Return Questioning (cross-examining might be too confusing). So here's the line of return questioning that works the best with these people, perhaps because they tend to be somewhat book-smart but not very practical:

"If your alternative explanation is correct, how would we test that? How much would it cost? How long would it take?"

In one case, as often happens with this type of person, it would require a risky and technically very complicated approach, not to mention an inhuman amount of work and money, all to test a far-fetched, dead-end hypothesis.

And everybody knew it.

AHA! Skewered you right back, didn't I?

So I hope I will remember this lesson, or at least remember to review this post. You never know who will be in the audience, but you have to assume somebody will always ask you something that you haven't thought of.

And of course you haven't thought of it, because it makes no sense!

The key is to


b) Give yourself time to think

c) Ask them clarifying questions to stall and/or reveal the inconsistencies in what they're asking.

And with that, I am going to give myself (and my cookie) a tiny pat on the back. Mmm, cookie.

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At 6:35 PM, Blogger Jane said...

Wow, what a great strategy! I'll have to remember this the next time I'm presenting somewhere. Thanks!

At 8:14 PM, Blogger RPM said...

One thing to beware of, if you're taking this strategy to a job talk, is that you don't want to insult your host. If you're planning on pointing out that someone's question is stoopid, you probably don't want to bury their foot too deep into the back of their throught. Of course, you also need to defend yourself, so I think you'll end up walking a thin line between making yourself look competent and not making your questioner look like a moron.

At 10:54 PM, Blogger coturnix said...

Oooh, I like that. I have to keep this advice in mind for the next time.

At 7:05 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Good point. Not having any job interviews to take it to, that's not an immediate concern for me, but may very likely apply to other people reading this.

I personally wouldn't want to work in a department where people attack each other this way and don't respect you for calling them on it.

In my field, there's more than one of these Big Dog types who only listen to you if you can debate with them. So they would be impressed by this strategy, rather than insulted by it. But I'm sure that depends on the field and the personalities involved.

At 7:07 PM, Blogger miriam said...

A good answer to a question like that is, "That's a very good question." Pause. Then rip them to shreds.


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