Thursday, December 30, 2010

Preparing to Answer Questions You Don't Know the Answer To

I'm pretty bad at answering questions on the spot unless I already know the answer (in which case I am practically no longer conscious of the good things I'm saying).  I recently asked for some advice on how to get better at answering questions on the spot, particularly in situations like technical interviews, oral exams and thesis defences.  The following list is a compilation of suggestions from friends on Twitter:
  • Think about the questions you will be asked and research the in-between knowledge as well.  Think about the big picture and interconnections between topics.
  • Practice, practice, practice.  Particularly practice answering the questions in various ways.
  • Since inexperience might make anticipating the questions difficult, try to get your lab mates and supervisor to help.  Weekly paper presentations are a good venue; you can practice answering questions on the spot and get critiqued on it.
  • Toastmasters isn't just about oral skills (as in presenting well).  I just learned it can help you with answering questions on the spot, too!
  • Joining an improv group would give you lots of practice of thinking on your feet.
  • Before speaking, visualize a list of things you want to say, then imagine yourself checking each item off as you speak.
  • When appropriate, think through your answer out loud.  Often those asking are interested in your way of thinking as much as your final answer.  Don't be afraid to pause while you think, and try to say things that makes them nod.
  • During a formal presentation, leave some content out so you know your audience will ask about it rather than unexpected aspects.  Create some slides at the end to use when the questions come up.
  • Brush up and be able to use terminology to sound like an expert.
  • Answer with multiple options for an answer and explain why each could be correct, and conclude with "but it's a difficult problem."
  • Link topic to a classic problem in a different field to demonstrate insight.
  • Never say "I don't know" right away; instead, rephrase the question until you are sure what they are asking.
Interestingly, two people suggested that women might have a bit of a harder time with this than men, since men may be more likely to make something up if they aren't sure.  Or, according to @petitegeek: "I'd say it's social conditioning. Women are more prone to say things like "I might be wrong but" = nice. Here it = fail."

My next opportunity to use this advice will be my thesis proposal defence, and I am definitely glad to have such a great list!

(Huge thanks to everyone who shared in the conversation: @petitegeek, @bukephalas, @catehstn, @elcera, @anitaborg_org, @rmgard, @tsienkiewicz, @ioanauoft, @PSchammy)


Glencora Borradaile said...

My question answering advise (for technical talks):

Repeat (in your own words) the question so the entire audience knows what is being discussed and to make sure you are going to spend time answering what the questioner has actually asked.

If you don't know the answer, admit it - partially answer if possible. Try to turn it into a discussion (time permitting.)

If you don't know the answer during a thesis defence, still admit it, but it helps to say how you would find out the answer ('I would check the paper on X', 'I know the answer is available at Y', 'I would ask expert Z').

Gail Carmichael said...

Thanks for the great additional advice Glencora! :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, as someone who taught gender for 10 years, I can confirm that men are a) more likely to make things up when they don't know something because b) they equate not knowing something with inadequacy and incompetence.

Because of b) I've become opposed to the idea that it's never okay to say 'I don't know' -- that's basically internalizing the competitive 'masculine' culture that still dominates so many fields.

The best advice I ever got was say to learn how to say 'I don't know' with great confidence, never thinking of it something you needed to apologize for. And just as Glencora mentioned, this person also advised adding '...but I know where to find out.'

Good list, though; I tell every teacher I know to take an improv class!

Gail Carmichael said...

I'm pretty tempted by the improv thing. I used to be pretty decent in drama class in high school, but only for scripted stuff. When it came to improv I wasn't confident enough. Maybe it's time to fix that! :)

Rebeca said...

excellent post! Thanks for sharing.

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