By Michele Trent
Public Speaking Coach
Do you have a love/hate relationship with questions? Did your child repeatedly ask you questions when you were trying to give them a grand lecture on the importance of tooth brushing? Was “why” their favorite word? Or maybe you have that colleague who questions everything. You just want to make your point without getting interrupted 10 times.
If you’ve been tempted to ban questions and questioning from your presentations, think again. Questions can be a powerful tool for engaging your audience and checking in with them to make sure your points are well understood.
There are many ways to begin a presentation. One of my favorites is with a question. Asking a question gets your audience engaged right off the start. “How many of you believe that we can grow our revenue in the 4th Quarter by 30%? Only two of you? Well, during this presentation, you are going to learn how we can surpass that goal and you’re going to get a clear blueprint to make it happen. You’ll leave feeling confident that this investment in resources will result in a record-breaking 4th Quarter.” Interested? Yes, your audience will be as well. You have piqued their interest and you’ve got them thinking. They are now invested and want to know more.
Of course, you could have said, “We are investing in new resources to grow revenue in the 4th Quarter by 30%.” This is a bit of a startling statement so you’ll likely have your audience’s attention but you’ve asked nothing of them. It’s clear that you’ll be doing the talking, they’ll be doing the listening, and eventually, they’ll check out as this is just another pitch from leadership. You can see how opening with a question is much more powerful.
Questions actively engage the audience. They are either thinking about the answer or you’ve directly asked them to respond. In the example above, you’ve asked for a direct response. You’re essentially taking a poll from the audience. As with any poll, be sure and report on the results. Take a minute to observe the room and report back. “Only two of you?” This not only gets everyone on the same page in terms of the sentiment of the room but it also sends a signal to the audience that you care that they participated. If you ask additional questions throughout your presentation, you will get responses. If you ignore the responses, people will stop giving you feedback because you’ve subtly communicated that you don’t care anyway.
Results from questions give you real-time feedback as to what the audience is thinking. Your goal as a speaker is to be clearly understood. What better way to ensure that your audience is following you than to ask questions along the way? Now some people may advise you not to ask questions because it will derail your remarks. In some cases, this is true but if you’re giving a presentation to a team and you need to be understood, questions are your ally.
Similarly to asking questions throughout, be willing to entertain questions toward the end of your remarks. Often times the Q&A section is as valuable or even more valuable than any of your prepared remarks. Don’t be concerned that you’ll get asked a question that will trip you up. If you’re asked something you don’t know, acknowledge it and offer to follow up. “I don’t have that specific data with me right now but will get that answer for you later today.” And then move on. If someone wants to start a debate with you regarding one of your answers, simply say, “I appreciate your interest in this; let’s discuss this more after today’s meeting. Does anyone else have a question?” Another option, in some circumstances, is to open the question up to the audience.
If you’re giving the same presentation multiple times to different teams, the questions asked will give you ideas on changes you may want to make to your presentation. If you keep getting the same question, perhaps you haven’t clearly communicated that point in your remarks and now you have a chance to clean that up before your next presentation.
Questions are a great way to address any lingering thoughts or confusion about what you’ve presented. However, don’t let questions have the final say. Once you finish the Q&A section, as Paul Barton advises, close with power. Leave your audience with exactly the key point you want to communicate. Going back to the example used at the beginning of this post, your ending might sound like, “As you now know, we have a plan to significantly increase sales in Q4. By using XYZ effectively, we are positioned well to not only achieve 30% growth but substantially more. You and your teams are about to take part in a record-breaking year-end for ABC. We couldn’t be more excited or more ready. The sky is truly the limit this year.”
Using questions to start your presentation will engage your audience early and get them involved with what you have to say. Asking questions along the way will ensure that they are following along and understand what you are communicating. Questions are a powerful tool that will make you an even better communicator.