August 6, 2009

What if no one participates?

One of the concerns I hear from speakers is "What if I ask a question and no one responds?" A related concern, "What if no one asks questions during Q & A?" This just happened to me today during a teleseminar, so it seemed like an opportune time to address it.

1. Don't take it personally.

A lot of people feel uncomfortable raising their hand to respond to or ask a question in a crowd. It's a form of public speaking, actually, and we all know how people feel about public speaking. Especially when we're not prepared and don't know exactly how we want to say something. The people who ask questions or speak in a crowd are the brave ones!

2. Be prepared.

If you ask a question and no one responds, be prepared with your desired answers. Give them a couple of moments to answer and be aware that the first person may not jump right in. But once you determine that no one will respond to the question, be ready to give your own answers.

3. Don't belittle the audience for not participating.

If it's early in the morning, I might say something like, "I understand, you're not full awake yet -- I'll come back to you a little later." But I won't dwell on it or put them down for not participating. I know it's hard for them to speak up and I don't want to make them feel bad on top of their anxiety.

I've seen speakers refuse to give up, "Come on, SOMEONE must have experienced this before. NO ONE wants to share?" And so forth. Bullying the audience just makes things worse. Leave them alone! Understand that there are a million reasons why they don't want to speak up and leave it at that.

4. Come back later!

Give them another chance. Have several opportunities for participation, in groups, in pairs, etc. Find ways for them to participate that are more comfortable. After this, they will likely be more willing to raise their hands and speak up.

Be open, be gentle, be nonjudgmental. They'll come around.

Article: How to Handle Audience Q&A

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5 comments. Please add yours! :

Greg Friese said...

Lisa, the best advice I received on this topic was to ask "What questions do you have?" instead of "Do you have any questions?"

Invite the audience to ask a question instead of daring them to say yes.

It is also really important to pause for at least 10 seconds so audience members can compose a question.

Training Connection said...

I usually just call on the participants by name to get "their insights" or "Personal summary" of what was just covered. This elicits them to think about what they have just heard, puts them on the spot with their peers, and gives them ample cause to maybe ask questions if it all hasn't quite been understood. I teach adult learners and it seems to be a dynamic of saving face that they now feel welcome to put me on the spot with further questions or make a statement that shows they are up with the topics. This is much like the comment before mine- the difference between giving them a yes or no question and instead of just assuming they are shy, I challenge them to show are paying attention.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

That's a great suggestion if you know people's names; it also suggests the group is in a somewhat safe environment where they know each other.

However, when I present at a conference where everyone is a stranger to each other, it's harder to break the ice. Adult learners do have sensitive egos and are afraid of looking foolish; "saving face" in their peer group, as you put it, is of high importance.

I'll be honest; I rarely have trouble getting people to talk; the hardest group was high school students, and even then it was only mildly difficult. It falls on the speaker to make that environment safe and encouraging and to find ways of opening up the group. I'm not in favor of putting people on the spot.

I do give them a variety of ways to participate through groups or dyads, so that when I do ask questions of the whole group, they're already warmed up from talking to other audience members.

Sandra Zimmer said...

Hi Lisa

In my Speaking from the Heart classes, I encourage people to craft questions carefully to help audience members be able to respond. Audiences are not accustomed to responding to speakers, and they have their own fears about speaking up in a group. So crafting a set of questions that makes it easy for them to respond is a valuable speaking skill. The first question or two can be close-ended so that you simply ask people to respond yes or no by a show of hands. That is easy for them to do. The third and fourth question can be open-ended where you ask for someone to share their ideas, insights or experience. I use the questioning process to make connection with audience members and to find out what they know, think or feel about the topic. It was one of the first techniques I created to help my fear of public speaking. I noticed that when I asked questions at the beginning of a talk, I relaxed as we opened a dialogue. Thanks for letting me share my experience. I invite you to check out my blog on Fear of Public Speaking at

Sandra Zimmer

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for sharing, Sandra.

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