The speaker wraps up their presentation, thanks the crowd, everyone claps. Then comes the awkward moment when the convenor asks for questions. *Deafening silence*
As a researcher, consultant and Committee Member for the Sydney Arts Management Advisory Group, I attend dozens of presentations and panel discussions each month – and many a Q&A makes me want to #facepalm.
Asking good questions is hard – but I am realising it’s really important. And I’m happy to put my metaphorical hand up and say it’s something I want to get better at.
In education settings, questions are a critical tool for learning, and in professional forums questions can be the key to real understanding and knowledge exchange for mutual benefit.
But easier said than done, right? Eric Sanders at Big Think says, ‘Anyone can speak in public, but not everyone knows how to ask a good question. You will have a much better chance of having your question heard and receiving a clear response if you practice and improve your question-asking skills.’
So how exactly does one ask a good question? After some digging, here’s what I found:
Prepare to be active
This requires both homework and the right mindset. Reading up beforehand can help you anticipate what the session is about – and understand the context more fully.
If you’ve chosen to be there – really make a commitment to concentrate and stay engaged. If you’re late – or tuning out – you might miss the part where they already answered your question. Oops.
Just like at a performance, sitting at or near the front often helps me focus (and I find I get more out of it if I can see the whites of their eyes!)
Bring a notepad
Taking notes might seem like hard work, but it can help clarify and crystallise key take-outs. If a question forms in your mind – write it down as you go – otherwise they can disappear into the ether.
I find pen and paper often works better than jotting things in my phone – and I can more easily refer to my notes when it’s time to speak.
Remember that whatever age and stage you’re at, your perspective is relevant. You don’t need to have grey hair to be worthy of the microphone. If something is mysterious to you – it probably is to others in the audience.
Follow your gut – but do so respectfully. Science Professor explains, ‘As a spectator at a talk, I enjoy a well-posed killer question, no matter who delivers it, but I think that everyone, from first-year students to ancient professors, can be most effective at asking these questions if the questions are simple and polite.’
Devise your question
Mind blank? Ask yourself: if I were to leave this room and try to apply what is being talked about, what would I need to know?
Speakers are often leaders in their field and if there is opportunity to ask for help – we should be seizing it with both hands (or one raised hand, rather). It’s also an opportunity for them to understand YOU better.
Can you push the speakers to be more specific about recommending an action, or giving an example? Is there something inconsistent in what has been said? What have they missed?
Philosopher Guy Longworth says there are 7 types of questions, including ‘the clarification’, ‘the comparison’ and ‘the counter-example’.
If in doubt, ask them about their personal journey. Speakers often skip over challenges or failures, and asking them about their mistakes or lessons learned often yields interesting answers!
Put your hand up
ot really any way around this one. Don’t think, just do it. Nice and straight now.
When it’s your turn, remember to breathe. Public speaking expert Lisa B Marshallsays ‘when you take the time to fill your lungs, it’s as if your voice is riding on a supportive cushion of air, and your throat muscles can stay relaxed. Your voice will carry better and have a richer, more pleasing sound.’
A good trick from the acting world is to imagine that the inside of your mouth and throat are as large as the room you are speaking in.
Offer some details about yourself (name & role at a minimum) before you ask your question. This will help the speakers, and the rest of the audience, understand where you’re coming from. It’s often nice to thank the speakers for sharing and say what you found interesting about their presentation.
If you’re battling to express your question succinctly, give a brief example of what you mean. Research shows that telling a story helps create empathy – and is more likely to be remembered.
Leave it open-ended
Asking open-ended questions will get insights and additional information you might not have known existed. Lifehack explains that questions with “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think” all lead to yes or no. Questions with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” “how,” or “why” lead to people giving some thought to their answers and provide much more information.
Tip – make sure you actually ask a question. There is nothing worse than someone who starts with ‘this is more of a comment than a question’. Even if you have an idea to share, and loads of experience in the area, finish with a question to throw it back to the speaker.
If you haven’t quite got what you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to probe a little more – ask them a follow up question such as, “What makes you say that?” or “Why do you think that?”
But in general – listen. SAMAG Committee Member Alli Burness said, ‘if it’s anything like user experience interviews, you should listen at least twice as much as you speak, and don’t interrupt.
Once you’ve had your go, say thank you and let the moderator move on. You can always approach the speaker after the session to discuss in further detail (and most speakers enjoy the attention too).
Now give yourself a high-five for asking a great question. Next time you’re at a public forum – remember how good it feels to contribute.
About the Author
Patternmakers’ Founder and Managing Director Tandi Williams is an experienced consultant and arts and culture research specialist.
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