Battling silent excuses

Fairly recently, a couple of the female science academics whose blogs I follow (Dorothy Bishop & Athene Donald) were discussing the issues of speaking up after talks, what stops people from doing it, the apparent gender divide, in that, regardless of the audience gender ratio, men are more likely to ask questions or comment than women, and what the advantages of having those post-talk discussions are.

Reading some of the comments and discussions made me feel a little guilty that I am so bad at it. I’ve been especially mindful of this lately as over the last couple of weeks I’ve been to a few good talks I found particularly interesting, done by other PhD students I know and am friendly with, which were followed by cricket chirping and perhaps a single person (if that) commenting/asking a question. It made me feel awkward for the speakers and guilty for not having the guts/ability to improve the situation with a well-placed interesting remark or question.

I can’t speak for anyone but myself on this issue, but I find that the very thought of speaking up in this environment fills me with sheer terror. I always have a million excuses for not saying what is on my mind, which are usually a combination of: “perhaps I just missed the speaker mentioning that”, “what if it is a dumb/naïve thing to say”, “it’s probably overly petty or obvious”, “no one else will actually care about that” and also “what if I stumble over my words and appear stupid”. The worst thing is that even in events that are especially designed to encourage “junior” academics to feel at ease (like journal clubs or workshops without the senior staff present), I still massively panic. If I am particularly interested in something, I do try to make myself speak up as most of my objection points above are not quite such a big deal then.

However, I usually choose the “safer”, more cowardly option of approaching a speaker after the talk, to find out more and express my interest in what they presented. This actually worked pretty well in my undergraduate lectures as I occasionally had some really interesting discussions with the lecturers and got to know some of them a bit. However, at this point in my academic career (and having read what others are saying on this topic), I think it would be sensible to try to move to that next step and ask questions out loud from the audience. I’m sure this is just one of those (many) things that get easier with practice.

One thing that I think would help with this is something I’ve seen a friend of mine do – she brings a notebook to all the talks we go to and if she thinks of something to say or a question, she writes it out. This seems like a good idea for several reasons; firstly, by the time the talk is over there’s a greater chance of still remembering the question/thought and secondly, concentrating on the rest of the talk might be easier without the need to keep in mind the question as well as trying to decide whether it is worth asking in the first place. I’m going to my first ever international conference next week so will try my best to practice this skill. I am going on my own and won’t know anyone there, which might make that easier (or indeed more difficult – we shall see!).

I’ve also just realised the slight irony of me writing my thoughts on this blog rather than just commenting on the original posts I link to above…

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4 thoughts on “Battling silent excuses

  1. I felt exactly the same way in talks when I was a student – I was always worried that I’d gotten so excited about thinking up a relevant question, that it might have already been addressed. Best thing I found to do is ask it anyway, prefaced with something like “Sorry, I’m not sure if you already covered this, but…”. Chances are is wasn’t, and it’s something worthwhile to ask.

    By the way have fun at the conference next week! Are you presenting?

  2. Thanks! yes, I am: 20-min talk (with 10 min for questions after – hope there’ll be some!) + 2 posters as well… More about that when I return 🙂

  3. Delighted to hear that you might be encouraged to give it a go. It’s really much less terrifying once you have spoken up on one or two occasions. I’m just back from giving a seminar in Paris: pleased to say I got quite a few questions, including one where someone pointed me to another study that seemed to contradict what I was saying. Now, I knew that study, but, as one does, had ignored/suppressed it. So I was glad to be reminded of it, and on the way home was having a nice long ponder about it. That means when I come to write up my work I will incorporate mention of the study, and if I’m asked about it again, I’ll be better prepared to consider how I can reconcile my results with the other study. I also got another question that suggested a further analysis I could do that would be really informative. Not all questions are helpful, but from the speaker’s perspective, it’s usually much better to get this kind of feedback than a silent room, and the questioner can sometimes really influence the way a line of work develops.

    • Thank you Dorothy. I’m not hugely experienced in giving talks yet as I’ve only done a handful to small audiences but I agree that the questions can be really interesting and useful, pursuing avenues of thought I might not have come up with myself. Also, it’s lovely to hear that people were interested in what I was saying – silence would make me worry that it had gone badly…

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