What To Do When Your Audience Doesn't Ask Questions

You finish your presentation. You turn to the audience and ask, “So, do you have any questions?”

No one responds. Audience members feel uncomfortable with the unfilled silence. People begin awkwardly squirming in their seats.

You finally end their misery by saying, “Well, if no one has any questions, thank you very much for your time today,” and quietly walk off the stage. And then you crawl inside your own head, interpreting their silence as a sign that you were unable to capture the audience’s attention.

That may be a bad assumption.

Audience Raising Hands

First, let me admit it. If I ask an audience whether they have any questions and no one does, I’m disappointed. I’ll occasionally crack a joke, pretending I’m addressing the wait staff by requesting a few jumbo-sized pots of coffee for the clearly caffeine-deprived attendees. But I recently realized that those “jokes” are a bad idea, since they make clear my disappointment in the audience’s failure to pose a question.

That joke is passive-aggressive.

I came to that realization when my wife and I attended a child birthing class a few months ago. The instructor was terrific, but the information she was dispensing was rather intense (“If the cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck, we may have to do an emergency C-section.”)

When she paused to ask if we had any questions, none of the 12 couples did. But it was clear that we were all listening and that we valued the information she was providing. Our lack of questions didn’t signify that we weren’t interested. If anything, it meant the opposite. We simply needed some time to process the information.

Sure, a lack of questions can also indicate audience boredom or a speaker who’s communicating at an inappropriately advanced level. But those audiences usually reflect that in their body language through signals such as heads resting in palms, tapping, or fidgeting.

So the next time an audience doesn’t ask questions, try to figure out whether it’s because you’re succeeding or flopping before automatically assuming that your presentation is a disaster. And instead of making a joke such as my caffeine one, be kinder to the audience by saying something such as, “I know. That’s a lot of information to take it at once, isn’t it? I want you to know I’ll be available to you as you reflect on what we discussed today.”

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