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Q&A: Participating in roundtable discussions

I recently received the following email from a reader (edited for anonymity):

I am invited to participate in a roundtable discussion next month, and I was wondering if you have any tips for participants. I am a PhD candidate and the roundtable is focused on Some Topic which was the focus of my last degree, an MPhil. I am excited to participate, but tend to be a quieter, more reserved personality, and I want to do well on this, my first, roundtable.

I took quite some time before replying this message. Since I tend to be more quiet and reserved myself, I am not the person who is the most active participant in discussions during committee meetings. However, I think I have found what works for me, with my personality, and still being of service during such presentations:

1. Volunteer for keeping minutes

If you can, you can offer the chair of the discussion to keep the minutes for the meeting and develop the report afterwards. Your action will be valued, even though you may not have spoken much during the meeting. If you are taking notes, you can also at some point ask another researcher to expand on a point that is interesting, for your personal interest but also to complete the report of the meeting.

2. Think ahead of a few topics to discuss

Before the discussion, you can think ahead about different subtopics that can come up during the discussion. Which point would you want to get across on each of these topics? What evidence do you have to support your claims? You may want to have a short preparation with the references you may want to mention on your laptop to refer to when you speak.

3. Think ahead of questions you want to share with others

To move the discussion forward when it gets stalled, you can prepare some questions that you may want to bring up for other participants in the discussion. You may for example prepare some questions in the following style: “Author X found result X, which contradicts findings from Y. I’ve been thinking about this discrepancy for a while now, and I have the impression that factors A,B, and C can explain this. I’d like to elaborate a bit more on this topic in this group. What is your opinion on this topic?” By formulating a question in this way you show the thinking and the work you’ve done, but you also open room for discussion and participation with others instead of just voicing your opinion.

4. Summarize the results you want to show

This element is closely related to nr. 2. If you did the work on this topic a while ago, you may want to make a short summary of your most important results for yourself, and have it on your laptop to look at if you need to refresh your memory. You may want to revise again the most important publications on the topic. If you make a claim, you can refer to these publications. If the paper does not seem to ring a bell for the other members, you can propose to pass it around on a stick or project the paper to show some of the main results and discuss this. Similarly, you can have a few graphs or tables with your main results that you can show by projecting this information during the meeting.

5. Don’t speak too quietly

If you tend to be a more quiet person, you may also have the tendency to speak a little more quiet. If your voice is naturally quiet, see if you can use a microphone, or try to speak up, so that your opinion and contribution does not get drowned by the others. If you feel a bit nervous, try to speak slowly and breathe with your diaphragm to calm yourself.

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