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.

Audience Questions Hands Raised

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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