Audience involvement is a critical part of any presentation. Allowing the audience to share their knowledge and experience benefits both the audience and the speaker; the audience learns from each other, and the speaker learns from the audience. The audience feels like their contributions are valued and that the speaker is not just treating them as an empty vessel to fill with her vast wisdom.
Unfortunately, the scenarios above are all too common when asking questions of the audience, and keep the audience from fully participating in the experience. When you improve your question-asking strategies, you are more likely to get the responses you want that help to illustrate the points you're trying to make. You also improve the collective experience of the audience. Here are some tips for managing this aspect of audience interaction.
1. Be specific.
You want to know how many of your audience members have performed a particular procedure recently. But "recently" is relative. Some people might think "recently" means "in the last two weeks." Some may think you're asking about the last six months.
If you want to know how many have performed the procedure in the last month, ask for only that information. Make it clear to the audience what specific information you're referring to, and you will get the answer you desire.
2. Direct your question with clear words and concepts.
I have a client who wants to know what her audience thinks of when they hear the word "epilepsy." But what she really wants to know is what myths and beliefs they've heard about epilepsy and seizures. She's looking for responses like "frothing at the mouth," and "you have to put something between their teeth" and "they might swallow their tongue."
In order to phrase her question to get the answers she wants, she has to be very specific: "What are some of the popular beliefs about epilepsy and seizures," might be one way to go. She might also use visual words like "What do you picture/imagine/envision when you think about seizures?" This will help the audience recall the images and pictures they have in their minds about epilepsy.
I like to ask my audiences what rules they've heard about public speaking. I flesh out this question by saying, "What have you been told that you should or shouldn't do when speaking?" And then to be very clear, I say, "You don't have to believe it or agree with it; it doesn't have to be right or wrong." This way, I'm sure to get some of the funnier or more ridiculous public speaking "rules."
3. Only ask a rhetorical question when you don't want an answer!
A rhetorical question is really a statement phrased as a question that is asked in order to make a point, NOT to get an actual response from the person you're asking. An example:
"Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution?" ~ H. L. Mencken
Sometimes a speaker thinks he's asking a question of the audience and hopes for an answer, but doesn't get one. This is frequently due to how the question is phrased. For example, if you say, "How did we get into this situation?" your audience could perceive that as rhetorical, especially if you don't give them enough time to formulate their answers.
A better way to ask might be to say, "What do you think are some of the reasons we've ended up in this situation?" And then pause and stand ready with your flip chart and markers to write down the answers!
A similar kind of question is the one where you ask, "Have you ever experienced this?" or "Have you ever felt this way?" The audience may nod or smile, but if you actually want the question answered, say "How many of you have experienced this?" That way, you get an active response, a show of hands.
Be specific. Direct, focus, and channel your questions in such a way that you get the responses you seek. Ask open-ended questions or questions that require a show of hands rather than yes or no questions. Practice these audience interaction strategies and you will find your audiences more involved and engaged, and your presentations more successful.
Share your tips for directing your audience's response!