Trainers – If you want a better answer, ask a better question.
Of all the courses and topics that I teach and deliver ideas on, the number one request for help I always receive is how to ask questions that your audience feel compelled to answer. It seems that the facilitators and the L&D specialists that I work with on a regular basis are all seeking to get more response from their delegates. So let me share with you the very simple two-part question structure that I use that pretty much “forces” (in a kind and respectful way you understand!) any audience to want to participate.
Now, if you’ve ever spoken at an event, whether a local briefing or a company- wide conference, you’ve probably experienced or at least seen other people in that moment when the speaker says, “So I’m going to throw the floor open to questions. Are there any questions?”
You know what happens next. Nothing. Nothing happens next. In fact, there’s usually a complete and enveloping silence. A tumbleweed drifts past, a church bell chimes somewhere in the distance. Perhaps one delegate might cough gently at the back of the room.
The alternative to this, of course, is that the speaker has “planted” a question on somebody in the room. “Just to start the questions rolling”, thinks the speaker. None of us know that the question was “planted”. It really doesn’t sound remotely rehearsed nor is your reaction remotely artificial…. and if you believe that, keep telling yourself that this is the solution. It looks and feels as fake as it truly is, and really doesn’t give you the effect you want.
The problem with the question, “Are there any questions?”, not to put too fine a point on it, is it’s too easy to ignore.
“Are there any questions?”
“No” is implied in the deafening silence that follows – there are no questions. I don’t make any assumptions about your presentations but I do know that too many corporate presentations are dull and boring and at the end of the presentation, the last thing anybody wants to do is to make it last any longer.
In addition, “Are there any questions?” – Pre-assumes that people were listening or care or were even engaging in any mental way whatsoever with your content. So aside from what you might and not might want to do with your presentation, let’s focus on this single question. The first thing to understand is that “Are there any questions?” Or “Any questions?” is likely almost always to get less response than you hope for.
Instead, the better question is “What questions have you got?” Or “What questions do you have?”
You’ll notice straight away that not only is this an open question—more importantly, it makes an assumption that the audience has a question. And this is important because for anyone in the audience to actually understand this question, although it happens in a fraction of a second—brains are clever like that—every person who hears the question “What questions have you got?” has to briefly go through a thought process.
“What question are they asking about?”
Clearly, in the question there is an assumption that there are questions and in order to understand the nature of the question, we have to accept the proposition that there are questions. This then causes the listener to “go inside” and to think, “What are the questions?” This simple tweak alone will massively increase the chance that there will be a question.
The next stage however, is very important. When you’ve asked “What questions have you got?” you then need to be quiet. You need to slow down. We’ve all seen people who say, “So, are there any questions? I mean do you have any questions? Any questions or anything … just don’t worry about asking—the only stupid question is the question you don’t ask. You can come and find me afterwards. I’ll be sobbing at the bar, alone.”
In other words, they keep on talking. What you’re going to do is to say, “What questions have you got?” and then you’re going to be quiet. Ideally, you need to wear a half smile. You need to look relaxed. You need to look as though you know there is a question coming. For this reason, whenever I have any authority over the layout of the room, I will always want the audiences’ chairs with their backs to the window. Not so much that they can’t look out of the window, but that I can.
So how long should you wait? Well, longer than you think. Most people who ask this question are speaking again within a second or two. That’s no time at all. My recommendation, and this is going to sound scary, is at least seven seconds.
Seven seconds is no time at all but when you’re on stage it can feel like a very long time. But it’s that precise mild awkwardness that some people are feeling that you as the speaker are going to capitalise on. As the seconds tick by—and there’s only seven of them—you’ll notice that people in the room start to feel a little bit awkward. Not in a bad way; they won’t really understand what is happening but somebody will ask a question. It’s often useful to have some water on stage with you. You can just top up your glass, have a little sip, you can glance back at the projector, you can look at the notes you’ve been writing on the flip charts, anything at all just to show that you’re relaxed and you will wait for an answer.
Now let’s assume you get a question. At this point it’s very important you thank them for the question. “Great question. Thank you for that.” “Ah, yes. Good question.” And then give the answer. Once you’ve done this—this is the second place most people make a mistake, relieved that someone spoke and you’ve had your question, most speakers now start babbling again or default back to “Are there any more questions?”
Take a moment to give your answer fully and completely and then look back to the room and simply ask “What else?”
You’ll notice that “What else?” is also open. It also assumes there is something else. The seven- second rule kicks in again now. Have a bit more water, look out of the window, nod gently to yourself. If there’s a second question, you follow the stage above. “Thank you for that.” “Good question.” “Ah, yes. That’s a great point.” Answer the question and then again “What else?”
There will come a point when there is nothing else. Your aim is to take the audience to that point. And it won’t be uncomfortable. The seven-second pause will put a gentle pressure on your audience to ask a question and when they ask it, they will feel a sense of relief. You can then answer. You then leverage that pause again to get the audience to a perspective where they want to ask you another question.
At the point when you feel there are no more questions or you’ve had enough time or you want to move on, you are totally in control to go, “Great let’s move on.”
Now, if you simply change your “Are there any questions?” to “What questions have you got?” and “What else?”, you will get a much, much higher hit rate than previously. I have explained this very simple, powerful technique to hundreds of trainers and speakers and a huge majority of them have come back with notes and thank-yous and observations about how powerful this technique was, almost as though they didn’t believe me when I told them. I can promise you this is the simplest way to get more people talking more of the time.
Try this the next time you are at an event and I can guarantee you’ll get more response than you’ve been receiving previously.
And no stooges or plants needed!