Stop Asking Your Audiences Dumb Questions!
When we prepare our presentation training clients for a practice speech, we encourage them to use a memorable speech opening. One of the powerful openings we recommend is the “Audience Question” open, in which the presenter begins by asking a question, often a “show of hands” question.
Even when presented with a list of ten potential openings, roughly half of the trainees gravitate toward that opening, probably because it seems easy. After all, most of us know how to ask a question.
But the majority of people ask a question that either gets them nowhere, elicits the opposite response as intended; or worst of all, comes across as condescendingly obvious.
As an example, here’s an opening one public speaking coach recommends: “How many of you would like to be more successful?” To me, that’s a condescending groaner akin to asking “How many of you like breathing?” or “Do any of you have a liver?”
Trainees often come up with similar lines, such as “How many of you would like to reduce workplace accidents?” or ”How many of you would like to sell more products next year?” When they ask those questions, everyone in the audience raises their hands, but without any conviction. (If their unenthusiastic arm raises could talk, they’d say, “Yeah, of course. No shit.”)
A Better Approach
Great opening questions should lead somewhere. They should challenge conventional thinking, lead to a counterintuitive conclusion, increase buy-in for your speech, or add an unexpected dose of humor.
As an example, here’s a set of three opening questions that should be used in sequence:
“How many of you feel that you’re doing a terrific job of managing the demands from your work life and your home life?” (maybe a few scattered hands go up)
“How many of you have ever thought to yourself that there are just not enough hours in the day to accomplish everything you’d like to do?” (most hands go up)
“When someone tells you that you should just try to find a better “work-life balance,” how many of you kind of want to punch that person?” (laughter)
“I know the feeling. Ten years ago, I was the most stressed out, unhappy, and overworked person I knew. One day, I stopped for a moment and thought, ‘This is crazy. Life is too short to be this unhappy!’ I’ve spent the past ten years learning how to counsel people who feel the same way today that I did back then. Today, I’m going to offer you ten specific tips to help you manage the demands from your work and home life better. And no, there are no magic bullets here – you’re still going to have to make an effort. But if you do these ten things, I’m confident that all of you will manage the demands in your life with greater ease than you are today.”
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Thank you! I absolutely despise questions at the start of a presentation. The action triggers all sorts of antagonistic grumblings within me . . . resenting the forced participation, a desire to counter whatever point is raised “It depends on how you define success,” I mumble as I raise my limp hand. Part of me fears a follow-up, which I’ve only seen once, in which the speaker proceeded to call on someone to expand upon the thought. “You in the second row. Yes, you, And why would you like to . . .” I found the display torturous, not informative.
I hasten to add that I do think questions can be introduced well in a presentation, and quite productively add to the sharing of information. But being a natural introvert, I see no value in a speaker immediately turning a pointed finger at his or her audience, which is how I experience this tactic. For me, and countless others I imagine, it’s off-putting.
Thank you so much for your comment. You raised a really important perspective – I may use your comment as the basis of a future blog post.
Thank you for reading!
In addition to John’s comment about putting the audience on the defensive, it also runs the risk of conflicting with the “psychology of the interaction.” An audience is inherently selfish. They are there to GET something from you. If the first thing they experience is a request for them to GIVE something to you (information), you have turned the expected interaction on its head.
I like to start by delivering at least one piece of useful knowledge, advice, technique or other value point before asking them to contribute. This tells them that I understand and am ready to deliver on their expectations of receiving value from me as the main point of the presentation.
The other psychological trick I recommend is to never phrase a question as “How many of you…” Instead, make it personal: “Raise your hand if you…” The first phrasing makes it academic. An individual can sit back and look around to see how many others respond. The second phrasing is a call to action and says that I am interested in YOUR response as an individual and I am expecting YOU to participate.
Many thanks for an always insightful, valuable, and interesting blog!
Recently I saw a speaker who told us in the audience that he’d like the session to be interactive, so we should respond loudly when he asked us a question. Sadly, it turned out that the questions seemed rather rhetorical, like “Are you with me?”
Also, my wife attends regular events where the speakers are in the habit of saying things like “Everybody say ‘destiny’!”
I always think they should suggest something more ironic, like “Everybody say ‘independent thought’!” or “Everybody say ‘brainwashing’!”
Your point about low-value questions is true of nearly all audience polls during webinars too, I’d say. So I argue it’d be better to cut out all the “audience interaction” and make the event (say) 10 minutes shorter as a result.
I’ve written a couple of blog posts about the same issue:
Thanks for adding to the debate, and hopefully more speakers will think twice before they ask dumb questions!