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Back of the head of a man in audience questioning or interrupting a woman speaker before him

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The academic seminar culture in the economics and finance field is lively, as it most likely is in other disciplines. The norm is that audience members can raise their hands to ask questions at any point in the seminar. This culture has the advantage of encouraging discussion. When the audience engages with the presenter in real time, important issues can be brought up and resolved in ways that cannot be accomplished with a question-and-answer session relegated to the end of a presentation.

Unfortunately, however, this culture also encourages audience members to ask irrelevant questions, interrupt the speaker prematurely and raise issues designed to shame or badger the speaker, show off, or hijack the presentation.

Senior presenters with a great deal of experience either know how to handle this behavior or are much less likely to experience it in the first place. And they can do it directly, as they are in a much less vulnerable stage in their careers. But the seminar culture can often leave junior researchers feeling too intimidated to stop unproductive audience participation in the middle of their seminar.

If you are ever in this situation, are there techniques you might use to discourage bad audience behavior from the outset? This article will present my recommendations for how to prevent audience rudeness and maintain control during your research presentations.

First, avoid broad generalizations at the very beginning of the talk. Many writing classes encourage starting an essay with a broad motivating idea and then narrowing down the discussion to the essay’s actual topic. But beginning a presentation with broad generalizations can be problematic, in part because some audience members can end up disappointed, as they might think that the talk is about these motivating ideas and not the actual narrower topic. This phenomenon happens because the spoken word is not the written word, and an audience member might only pay attention to the motivating idea.

More importantly, starting with a broad motivating idea offers a chance for audience members to hijack you. Some want to show off and showcase their knowledge, while others are genuinely curious about the broad motivating idea, but the effect is the same: you, the speaker, get interrupted and distracted.

Also, if you start with a generalization, you might touch on somebody else’s expertise. In that case, you are playing in their territory, not your territory, and you are more likely to be disrupted by questions you do not understand.

Second, to avoid this type of interruption, begin with your specific research question, which ensures that the audience will focus on your work rather than on tangential topics. That way, you have immediately brought your audience into your area of expertise, where it will be harder for somebody to trip you up, intentionally or unintentionally. Ultimately, by definition, you know more about your paper than anybody else.

Third, keep the introduction of your talk concise—ideally within five slides. Present your research question, methods and findings first. At this point, you can finally discuss their broader significance. By organizing the introduction elements along these lines, you are more likely to make your audience see the point of the broader implications, so they will be less likely to draw on tangential topics for their questions.

Fourth, organize your literature review. In the literature review section, group papers into no more than three categories. Rather than describing the papers in detail, emphasize how your research builds upon and extends their findings.

Fifth, provide occasional updates. If an audience member is temporarily distracted, everything you have said during that time is lost to that person. Thus, to keep people engaged, occasionally pause to summarize your progress and outline the next steps. That allows all attendees to catch up and remain interested in your presentation. A word of caution: while this rhetorical device is especially effective when outlining a mathematical model, it is also important not to overuse it. A few mini summaries are plenty for one talk.

Sixth, create effective title slides. Ensure that your titles clearly communicate the main takeaway from each slide. The title is the only part of the slide that will stick in many people’s heads, so make it more than “Results” or “Model.” Ideally, each title should be a complete sentence. This strategy is particularly important for slides with tables or plots. By using topic sentences as titles, you’ll make it easier for your audience to remember the key points of your particular table or figure.

Seventh, the ratio of white space to text should be high. Overloading slides with text can be counterproductive, as people cannot read and listen simultaneously. Instead, focus on delivering your key points verbally and providing visual support that is easy to digest. Ideally, bullet points should be no more than one line long. When composing slides, it is useful to have a first draft. Then remove approximately three-quarters of the text from that initial draft, leaving only the most crucial information.

Eighth, put off questions that you will eventually answer anyway. That said, few people can hold more than two or three such questions in their heads at once, so do not employ this strategy too much. And always acknowledge the person who originally asked the question when you finally answer it.

Ninth, listen to questions. Listening does not mean that sound waves are entering your ears. It means you stop, face the audience member who asked the question and turn off your inner voice. While that person is asking the question, do not try to figure out an answer to it. Doing so will result in an answer, but probably not to the specific question that was asked.

Coming up with an answer can happen later. For now, just listen carefully to the question. If necessary, ask for clarification. It might only take a split second—and a split second while standing in front of an audience can feel like an eternity—but the likelihood you answer the actual question that was asked will increase a great deal.

In sum, by following these tips, you can present your research in an academic setting that encourages audience participation yet avoids unproductive lines of questioning. You can prevent audience rudeness and maintain control of the key messages you want to communicate. Start with your research question, keep your introduction brief, create clean slides and listen to questions. With careful planning and effective delivery, you can give an excellent and informative presentation with far less stress.

Toni M. Whited is professor of finance and the Dale L. Dykema Professor of Business Administration at the University of Michigan.

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