There are many reasons why questions can be a key part of a presentation. There are also different types of questions that can be used, each with its own pros and cons. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of the weapons you have in your arsenal so that you can make a clear decision when you’re selecting which to deploy. Let’s explore a few types of questions and questioning techniques to figure out how they can best serve your presentation’s mission.
Overhead questions are often posed as an opener to the audience-at-large. These questions are meant to be intriguing and proactive to help prepare your audience in thinking about the topic at-hand. For example, “Have you ever wondered why some house plants wither and die when they’re not in sunlit areas?” This type of question can be rhetorical in that no one is expected to voice an answer even though they’re still being challenged to come up with one. Other times, audience members will call out their answers – which can range from right on to random. Regardless of whether there is a spoken response, the purpose of the question is to introduce the topic or to get audience thinking about it in a specific way.
Direct Questions Using the “Ask, Pause, Call” Technique
Many people are familiar with the direct question technique, as that’s what we experienced in elementary and high school. “John, would you please read the next paragraph?” “Amy, what is photosynthesis?” Here again, the purpose of direct questions can either be to specifically engage the audience (for example: John) or validate the learning (for example: Amy).
There is a technique called “Ask, Pause, Call” that can make direct questions exponentially more effective. The problem with direct questions is that when you first say the name of the participant you want to answer, you let everyone else off the hook. There is a collective sigh of relief when people think, “I’ll just listen to what Amy says.” If, instead, you hold off stating the name till the end, you’re still choosing the participant (and thus helping to ensure you don’t have only a couple of people in the audience giving all the answers), but you’re also challenging all the audience members to have an answer ready as they won’t know whose name you’ll say after the pause. The real challenge here is for the presenter to lean into the pause. Many presenters feel uncomfortable when first using this technique, so they don’t pause long enough and don’t give the audience enough time to come up with an answer.
A couple of things to note: This technique is only helpful when you know the names of your audience or if their names are displayed. Otherwise, it can be confusing trying to determine who exactly is being called upon. Also, many audiences won’t be familiar with the “Ask, Pause, Call” technique so it may take a few tries before they abandon the habit of blurting out the answer. It’s ok if it’s a bit awkward in the beginning. Stay consistent in applying this technique throughout the presentation and eventually your audience will adjust to wait for you to call a name.
There is some debate on the exact definition of reverse and relay questions, but these approaches are worth discussing, as both methods can be very useful.
A reverse question is originally posed to the presenter; who then reverses and asks that same question back to that audience member. For example, “That’s a good question, Kathy, if cacti have no leaves how do you think that they carry out photosynthesis?”
A relay question is originally posed to the presenter, who then relays the question to a different audience member.
With either of these styles of questioning techniques, the benefit is that this is a good way to get the audience members to share their thoughts on a topic.
Another use of relay style is to redirect an incorrect answer. When this happens, many presenters will respond by giving the correct response, especially since a wrong answer can create a temporary stressor in the overall presentation environment. Instead, consider using a relay question as a follow-up, “Mike, can you help John explain the difference between when photosynthesis and when transpiration occurs in cacti?” If done correctly, this can help build a learning atmosphere where audience members see themselves as working together to understand the topic.
There is no single, correct questioning technique or style of question that is perfect for every situation. Instead, a presenter who understands and employs several different questioning approaches (and their respective benefits) is properly equipped to handle any and all learning occasions.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.