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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Questions upon questions

The French Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once said, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he's one who asks the right questions.”  Still, as scientists we often have to answer questions as well…usually at the end of our talks when we’re tired and simply wishing for a nap, or perhaps a beer.

The Q&A session at the end of the talk is the time when we can build a deeper connection with the audience-really engage, clarify misunderstandings, and strengthen our message.  How can we do this well?

For a straight-forward question, we can apply a straight-forward technique.  Listen politely as the question is asked, repeat the question, and answer it.  That’s it! No going on about some additional data that we really wanted to show but ran out of time, no waxing poetic about the experiment we want to do someday.  A simple answer will suffice.  Oh, and the repeating part is important, both to make sure we understand the question, and to help the other audience members hear the question (some questioners mumble).

What about the all-too-common times when it’s not a simple question?  We’ve all encountered audience members that talk on and on about the topic, either never asking a question, or asking many in rapid succession like a question gun on automatic. In these cases, I recommend letting the questioner talk for 2 minutes max (less if you’re really pressed for time), then politely interrupting with something like, “let me stop you here to make sure I understand your question”, or “this is what I think you are saying”, and then proceed to answer the question using the simple strategy above. For multi-part questions, it’s often best to answer one or two parts, then tell the audience member that you’re pleased he or she is so knowledgeable/engaged/interested in your topic (a little flattery will get you everywhere) and that you would be happy to continue a discussion with them after your talk.

Finally, sometimes we get a in tight spot with an audience member that truly knows more about a topic than we do, or asks a question for which we don’t know the answer.  If the audience member is right (implying that you were wrong about something), I think it’s best to acknowledge this. If you simply don’t know, it’s better to say so than to say something incorrect before a quick Google search by a tech-savvy audience member leads to embarrassment! Better yet, exchange contact information with the audience member who asked the question, and tell them you will find out the answer to their question and get back to them later. Follow-up is a great way to save face.

As scientists we both ask questions and answer them.  Don’t bemoan the Q&A session at your next talk, but instead approach it as another great communication opportunity!  And yes, now you can have your beer…

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