Career Center

Tough audience

Americans fear public speaking more than anything else on earth except snakes, according to a 2011 Gallup poll. So if you're jittery about presenting your research, you're in good company.

Which part of a presentation worries people most? The question-and-answer portion, says Carnegie Mellon University assistant psychology professor J. David Creswell, PhD, who regularly presents on stress and coping. "That's because it is the most unknown aspect of your talk, and you don't know what people will throw at you."

The good news: You can prepare in advance to hit any curveballs that come your way, he and other veteran presenters say. Here's their advice:

Take Control

You're in charge of the Q&A, so don't be afraid to keep it focused on your research, experts say. "It's natural for grad students, postdocs or trainees to want to ingratiate themselves with the audience," says Creswell, "but you're the expert and you can manage your talk however you want." It's particularly important not to let a few people hog the floor — attendees with their own research agenda, for instance, or those intent on dissecting your statistical analysis. "Remember that you're performing for the group, not for a few outspoken individuals," says Jeremy Bailenson, PhD, a Stanford University psychology professor and veteran presenter. If a question isn't relevant or interesting to the group, it's best to figure out another way of handling it, he says.

Take it Outside

To stop a loquacious audience member or a line of questioning that's unlikely to interest others, try saying something like, "That's a very interesting thought; thanks for your comment," says Hannah-Hanh Nguyen, PhD, a psychology professor at California State University, Long Beach. Another strategy to keep your presentation on track is tabling the discussion. "Briefly respond to the most recent part of the question," Nguyen says. "Then you can ask the questioner to talk to you after the session."

Exercise Diplomacy

Throughout the Q&A, use tact, even if a questioner is out of line. With grandstanders, for instance, that might mean using their first name if they have shared it, and suggesting a post-presentation chat, says psychologist Brian Wansink, PhD, a popular speaker on food-related research and a Cornell University professor of applied economics and management. Likewise, be kind to audience members who misunderstand details of your study or ask questions that don't quite hit the mark, advises Kathryn Perez, a psychology doctoral student at Walden University. "Make it sound as though you were the one who failed to communicate your research properly, and then go on to explain it again," she says. "After all, we want people to leave feeling good about having attended."

Handle Hostility with Detachment

On rare occasions, a questioner may seem to have an ax to grind, querying you with an aggressive edge. If that happens, take a deep breath and make yourself think about what they're saying rather than how they're saying it, says Susan Fiske, PhD, a Princeton University psychology professor. "If you can force yourself to ignore their nonverbal cues, you usually discover you've already thought a lot about this question in the course of your work," she says. "So you probably have a pretty good answer." Sometimes, you can take difficult or annoying questions and turn them to your advantage, Bailenson adds. When questioners attempt to advance their own agendas, for instance, he briefly and cheerfully acknowledges their contributions. "Then I present some additional material that I did not have time to get to in my talk, regardless of how unrelated to the comment it was," he says.

Listen and Learn

You can learn a lot from presentation questions, even when they are confrontational, experts say. When Fiske started presenting in the mid-1970s, an audience member asked her how she was able to reconcile two disparate lines of research she was conducting on social impressions. She took the comment to heart and wound up developing a theoretical model integrating the two that became the foundation for a line of research she's still pursuing. For his part, Creswell takes note of good presentation questions and makes sure to address them in his papers' discussion sections, he says. With time and practice, the Q&A can morph from something you dread to one of the most rewarding aspects of your work, Creswell adds. "It's actually what I look forward to the most now when I give talks," he says. "People's questions can be very generative, and they can also expose weaknesses in your logic and methodologies. They're a great opportunity to learn and improve your work."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.