If you’re delivering a talk or presentation, questions are your best friend.
I’m not referring to the questions your audience asks you during Q&A – no doubt, those are really important too – but I’m referring to the questions you ask your audience.
Here’s my triple-win rationale for speakers posing questions to their audiences:
First, if you tend to get nervous, you can throw a question or two to the audience as a way to give yourself a little breather. The first 120 seconds of a presentation are the most anxiety-provoking – that’s when you’re the most nervous and probably not breathing normally – and so posing a question to the audience will give you an opportunity to share the floor and grab enough time for a nice, hopefully calming, inhale and exhale.
Second, we all know from our experience as audience members that we like to be engaged, it holds our attention better. Questions therefore are a great tool for connecting with and engaging your audience – inviting them to access their own knowledge or experiences around your topic, making them question biases or misconceptions about your topic, getting them to think. These are all good, as they will help you open your audience’s minds to hear what you have to say.
Third, questions are a change in stimulation during a talk or presentation. They are attention-grabbing and will wake up any sleepers or daydreamers in the room. I often get asked how to bring back an audience’s attention when you feel like they’re fading or drifting. Well, asking them questions is one perfectly good way!
Here are three tips for using questions effectively:
1. Prepare your questions in advance and know when you’re going to ask them. Note of caution: You’ll also need to be ready to answer the questions yourself in the unlikely, but possible, event of radio silence from the audience.
2. Make sure the questions do a good job of queuing up your next point – or, in the case of an opening question, queuing up your whole talk.
An example of this is a sports arena executive I worked with a few years back who was often invited to speak to Rotary Clubs and other local business groups. He would open his presentations by asking his audiences to guess how many rolls of toilet paper they thought the arena went through in a year. This was such an entertaining way to spark the audience’s thoughts about the vast numbers of visitors and diversity of events at the arena, which supported his overall message that the arena entertains an entire region!
3. If you ask a question and people answer, please be sure to acknowledge and repeat back as many of the answers as you can. This not only fuels the engagement between speaker and audience, but it also recognizes audience members for making an effort.