February 10, 2012

Why your audience isn't participating

One of the quickest ways to lose your audience is to pretend to want participation, but not really invite it. How do you do this? Ask the wrong kinds of questions.

I love asking my audience questions. I love to know how they respond to my topic and my ideas, and I'm constantly asking for their experiences and their thoughts. I attended a presentation recently where the speaker seemed to be doing this, but was actually just reinforcing her own experiences and her own thoughts, through the use of both rhetorical questions (questions asked for the purpose of making a point, not for the purpose of getting an answer) and ridiculous questions.

Here's an example of the different ways someone could ask the same question. In a recent presentation, I asked my audience if they've ever regretting not speaking up when they had something to say. Here are a couple of ways I could have said it:

1. "Don't you hate it when you wish you had said something but you didn't?"

2. "How many people in this room just love that sucky feeling in your gut when you should have said something but didn't?"

3. "Raise your hand if you've ever regretted not saying something when you should have."

The first question doesn't give the audience an opportunity to answer, beyond nodding their heads and responding internally. One problem with a question like this is that there's an assumption we will all have the same response. Maybe someone puts her foot in her mouth all the time and is trying to speak up less. This question assumes everyone in the audience has had the same experience.

The second question is sarcastic, assuming the opposite response, similar to the assumption made in the first question. Except that this question appears to ask for audience participation, but of course no one will raise her hand, because no one loves that sucky feeling.

The third question is direct, requests a response, does not assume anything about the audience, and results in a show of hands. From there, I can go on and ask for examples, or for people to talk to their neighbor or any number of follow-up activities. This question opens the door instead of creating a barrier.

In most presentations, we use a combination of questions. Sometimes we use a rhetorical question because we want to make a point. Sometimes we ask a ridiculous question in order to get a laugh. Most of our questions, however, should be of the direct and specific kind. Here's a post I wrote a couple of years ago about how to carefully direct your audience's response so you're not left hanging when you ask a question.

Back to the presentation I recently attended where the speaker used almost entirely rhetorical and ridiculous questions. Three things happened for me:

1. I got frustrated because I wanted to participate but couldn't.

2. I started to feel manipulated by her questions, which weren't really questions but roundabout ways of stating her opinions.

3. Her presentation started sounding more like a rant than a serious, thoughtful conversation.

Think about the kinds of responses you want when you ask the audience questions, and make sure that your questions are not primarily about reinforcing your own points. Use rhetorical questions sparingly; they can be powerful, but they can also be annoying and manipulative.

Here's an entertaining page with literal answers to rhetorical questions.

Here's an in-depth article by Olivia Mitchell covering the 10 steps to asking questions so you get an answer every time.

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