Editor’s Note – Links to Jerry’s three previous articles on presentations: Handling Questions: A Presenter’s Guide; Presenter’s Guide Series, Part II – Dealing With Difficult Questions; and Presenter’s Guide Series Part III: The Many Benefits of Question Forms
Everyone has sat through all too many dull presentations. Maybe the content was useful (if you could stay awake to listen to it) but you’re not excited to sit through another one of these. What’s missing in the dull session? The audience. If the audience is not understood, not engaged, not brought into the conversation, the session usually dies on the vine. Asking the audience questions is one way to improve your training sessions.
Qualify the Audience
The first opportunity to usefully quiz the audience is at the beginning of a presentation. Often you don’t know who’s in the room unless you have a few friends, in which case there’s a risk we will end up speaking mostly to them.
There is a better way. Use questions to “qualify” an audience. Ask the audience about their background and what they hope to get out of the session.
Acknowledging their backgrounds and concerns is a first step toward developing a rapport with the audience. Ideally, the trainer will be flexible enough to take what they learn into account and customize the training on the fly. However, even if you are not that flexible, merely showing interest in the audience can be the first step toward making a favorable impression.
Other Opportunities to Ask Questions
At the simplest level, questions break the monotony. Instead of the same voice droning at the front of the room for an hour, other voices are heard, different rhythms, different timbres, different approaches.
Thoughtful questions can make audiences pay more attention to the program. They transform audience members from passive receptacles of your gems of wisdom into active, thinking participants.
Sometimes questions can be a way of putting an idea in play without taking complete ownership of it. The question puts the idea out there, without you formally endorsing it.
For example, in the post-Covid atmosphere, some audience members may take working at home as now a sacrosanct part of their lifestyle. If you suggest that people who work at home most or all the time may be at a disadvantage at career-building, at getting promotions in a completive environment, this may make some people in this category argumentative. You may be able to avoid distracting offshoot discussion by instead asking the audience a question like “Does anyone believe that teleworkers might be at a disadvantage in competing with their peers who come to the office more often?”
The Power of Answers from the Audience
The “highest and best use” I have found for questions is emphasizing a particularly important teaching point. In fact, I sometimes try to structure a presentation so that it will be a member of the audience—not me—who first articulates the most controversial or important idea. This technique can be a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled presenter.
This is particularly valuable when the idea is controversial or there is some reason to expect that some in the audience will be predisposed to reject it. If the instructor prepares the moment properly, when an audience member first states the idea, it will seem more persuasive. It’s not just some crazy idea the guy standing in front of the room is trying to foist on the group, it’s coming from a presumed peer in the audience.
A savvy instructor will build on this by repeating the concept and endorsing it, and perhaps the person who proffered it. Another way of reinforcing the idea is to ask the audience member to repeat or explain his answer. Repetition is the educator’s ally.
Some instructors avoid questioning the audience because they fear they will lose control of their presentation. There is little to fear if you have a few basic techniques in your repertoire.
Come across as genuine and brightly optimistic that the students will be able to answer the question. I like to provide cheerful encouragement like “I’d love to hear what you think.” If responses are slow in coming, try following up with a few softball-type leading questions.
Treat any reasonable attempt at a response positively. Be generous with praise and steer the discussion in the desired direction. For example, “That is a very clever approach, but is it the best for this situation? What do the rest of you think?”
Praising those who proffer answers emboldens others to contribute, but even better, in situations where you are concerned some in the audience may be pre-disposed to be disputatious, it subtly encourages others to try to give “good” answers that will earn further praise from the authority figure in the room (you).
Sprinkling in a few Jeopardy-type questions on interesting topics may help engage an audience. This can work even if the questions don’t have all that much to do with the topic of your presentation. For example, if I’m using the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to illustrate a point I might ask, “By the way, one famous politician reported that this was his favorite movie. Who remembers him?” The answer invariably provokes a chuckle those in the audience old enough to remember former Vice President Dan Quayle, the source of insights on so many subjects, including the environment (“It isn’t pollution that is harming our environment. It’s impurities in our air and water.”), family planning, “Illegitimacy is something we should talk about in terms of not having it.” and political strategy: “If we do not succeed, then we run the risk of failure.”
Some public speaking books recommend that an instructor who is stumped by a difficult question should turn it back on the audience. This works in some situations. If you are a lawyer teaching a group of other lawyers in your organization, you may be more of a peer than an authority figure.
In other settings the reverse-the-question technique is dubious. Most often the presenter is supposed to be the expert, the authority figure. Passing some types of questions to the audience can diminish your credibility. If stumped, it’s usually less damaging to respond with the time-honored gambit of offering to look up the answer.
Don’t give the appearance of being disrespectful toward an audience member. This will not merely deaden the crowd by making others less likely to contribute, but it will make the audience (who identifies with their peers in the group) resent you.
The final don’t: Never flog a dead audience, like the economics teacher (played by Ben Stein) in this YouTube clip from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the… Anyone? Anyone?… the Great Depression, passed the… Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which, anyone? Raised or lowered?… raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects?
And the economics teacher’s grating monotone continued to torture his students on and on and on. Please show more mercy to your audiences.
Learn From The Mom Who Always Asked: “Did You Ask Any Good Questions Today?
As I hope I’ve demonstrated, questions can benefit audiences—and presenters—in multiple ways. The biggest personal benefit I have found is simple: I learn things.
Even when an audience answer is off the mark it can prompt me to think about issues in different and better ways. Audience answers often spark useful ideas that never would have occurred to me if I had not asked a question. Sometimes audiences teach me more than I teach them.
The mother of a boy named Izzy had the right approach. Every day when he came home from school she had one query: “Izzy, did you ask any good questions today?” Every day the same demanding and persistent query: “Izzy, did you ask any good questions today?
Is it really a complete surprise that Izzy grew up to be Nobel Prize winner Dr. Isidor Rabi?
Few people will benefit from asking questions as much as Dr. Rabi, but hey, give it a try.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Elizabeth Southerland for helping me better understand why and how to ask audiences questions.