Tell Them

In my earliest academic days I was given the following advice for structuring a presentation: tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; tell them what you told them.

“Them” in this case was the audience. Over the years I’ve realised the heart of the good advice here: set expectations, share what you’re sharing and summarise at the end.

It is good advice generally.

In the viva you’re at the stage of telling your examiners what you told them in the thesis, more or less. You’ve set it out for them, they read it; now you have to summarise, clarify, expand and make sure they get what they need.

Of course, there are more ways you could tell them at the viva too.

You could tell them a story. You could tell them more. You could tell them what you left out. You could tell them what you didn’t get to do. You could tell them what you hope to do in the future. You could tell them what you plan to do next. You could tell them your opinion.

You could tell them lots of things, but remember that the viva is not a presentation, and it’s not the questions that come at the end. It’s a discussion. Prepare to tell your examiners lots of things, but prepare to be part of a conversation rather than someone simply answering questions.

Out Of Options?

I don’t think there’s ever a situation in the viva where you can do nothing.

I can’t think of a question that could be asked that a candidate couldn’t respond to. Questions from examiners are asked to prompt discussion. They’re asked to clarify what something means. They’re asked to dig deeper into your thesis and research.

By design, they’re not asked to crush you, stump you or stop you. They’re not asked to tear your work apart or make you feel small. They could be uncomfortable, they could be critical or they could ask about something that you’ve not thought about before.

You always have options for how you engage with them.

You just need to pause. Then you think. And you respond. A difficult question or comment cannot derail your success so long as you pause, think and respond.

There’s always something you can do.


Whenever you respond to a question in the viva, remember that you need to offer evidence. A question might be seeking information; you need to provide it. A question might ask if you are correct; you can’t simply say yes. You need to offer evidence – context, information, reasons – that help show that you are correct.

Whenever you receive a question in the viva, remember that it is being asked for a reason. The evidence of your thesis, the story, facts and figures you have written up, have given your examiners plenty to think about. The evidence of your thesis prompts the questions that you are being asked to drive the discussion.

Don’t Prepare Monologues

Your examiners are not attending a play. They don’t want you to sit (or stand) and talk at them for hours. They want a conversation. They want you to respond rather than recite.

There might be tricky parts of your research or thesis where it matters if the words are said a certain way. Of course, check that you remember them correctly – but don’t expect to simply parrot them to your examiners.

It’s far better to have general rehearsal for responding to questions (with a mock viva or having a chat with friends) than it is to write down and try to memorise lots of possible responses to lots of possible questions.

You need to talk in the viva. You need to prepare to do that. You don’t need to have prepared responses or monologues.

Saying The Right Thing

In the viva, no candidate wants to say the wrong thing. No-one wants to misremember a detail or misquote a paper. No-one wants to go blank and say the first thing, the silly thing, the wrong thing.

No-one wants to say the wrong thing, but remember there might not be a right thing.

Not every question has an answer. Not every question is probing for truth. A question could be exploratory. A question could be to clarify a point. A question could be seeking an opinion if there is one.

In the viva you could definitely say the wrong thing; depending on the question you might not be able to offer a right thing. You can always take your time and offer your best. Listen to the question, pause, think and respond.

Pause, Think, Respond

The three words to keep in mind when you are in your viva.

Pause: take a moment to check you understand the question.

Think: invest a little time into organising your thoughts.

Respond: start talking, being clear to yourself and your examiners.

  • Big question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Little question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Easy question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Hard question? Pause, think, respond.
  • Know the answer? Pause, think, respond.
  • Haven’t a clue? Pause, think, respond.

Pause because you don’t need to rush. Taking time will help how you think and what you say.

Think because that’s the only way to get the ideas that you need to come out right.

Respond because you might not always have an answer, but you can always find something appropriate to continue the conversation.

In your viva: pause, think, respond.