Discussing your Research

Some of the most important, albeit daunting, work of a presentation happens in the Discussion Period. Whether you are casually sharing ideas in class, or giving a formal presentation, you will likely be continuing the discussion – often by fielding questions and comments – after you are done speaking. This can be a dreaded moment for many of us (“What if no one has questions?” “What if they have questions and I can’t answer them?”), but there’s a reason why the question period is such a persistent part of scholarly speaking. 

Indeed, while the Q & A segment typically comes when our speaking turn feels “over” – it is actually at the very heart of why we are up there speaking. If you have read the popular writing textbook called They Say, I Say, you may know that academic work, even when it is in writing, is described as a “social, conversational act,” and you will find references to the “scholarly conversation” throughout this site. The work of the university, then – sharing research, developing it in the context of other research – is really happening when we speak to other scholars in live settings.   

Based on what you’ve read here, describe the purpose of the discussion period in your own words. Consider the purpose for the audience and for the speaker. How might remembering the purpose help you the next time you are asked questions in a scholarly setting?

Consider these points to help you prepare for a discussion period:    

  • Try not to think of the discussion as a test or firing squad. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to tell your audience more about what you know – and to learn more from them, too.  
  • It is OK to pause and think about a question before you answer it. Taking time to gather your thoughts and prepare a considered answer is in the spirit of academic work. 
  • If you don’t know an answer, be ready to simply say, “I don’t know that.” Write down the question so you can follow up on it later, either with the person who asked, or just for yourself. If you can’t answer a question directly, you might suggest something it makes you think of that might push the conversation forward.  
  • Remember that you are only responsible to speak about what you know and what you have been discussing. If someone’s question or comment feels unfamiliar to you, you can say, for example, “my research was about dogs, so I can’t speak to that behaviour in cats. In the case of dogs, I’ve found…” 

Tip: Make sure you have a way to take notes in a question period. You can jot down your ideas as someone is asking their question, or you can record things you are learning during the discussion that you might want to follow up on.

Next time you’re in class or attending a presentation, practice being a good audience member! What does that look like to you? What kind of audience do you appreciate when you are presenting? Someone who listens without distractions? Someone who asks questions out of curiosity and care? Try asking a question to the presenter and noting how they answer. 

Below you will find some examples of discussion periods that followed student presentations. As you’re watching, look for the kinds of questions the audience asks as well as how the presenters answer. 

The discussion period is an opportunity for an audience member to ask the speaker for clarification on something they missed, didn’t fully understand, or want to discuss further. As the speaker, this can be a good chance to review or extend ideas that are important to you.  

It is common for an audience member to ask a speaker to give a perspective on a topic that is related to, but not entirely covered by, what the speaker just discussed. Sometimes an audience member might ask you to relate your topic to something they are interested in, something raised elsewhere in the class or panel, or something that is topical or timely.  

As noted above, discussion periods are not “tests” but are, ideally, opportunities for conversation. You might find that an audience member, or fellow presenter, wants to keep the conversation going by asking you to think with them, or other speakers, on a related topic.