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Prompt Your Audience to Respond: Ask Questions!

We’ve all seen speakers who seem to know exactly how to get an audience energized. These speakers have an effortless, intuitive sense that enables them to keep a connection with any audience. And they often use powerful questioning techniques to help them prompt audience involvement.


Let’s look at the direct and rhetorical question to see how these tools can help you keep your audience engaged.



Ask a direct question

The direct question—one in which you are looking for a verbal response from audience members—is a reliable technique to use with a small group of fifty people or less. When you ask a direct question, audience members wake up and pay attention partly because they could be “called on” and partly because you are showing more interest in them.


When you “read” that your audience is getting bored, try using the direct question to get them re-engaged. Here are some examples of direct questions you can ask to prompt audience participation:


·         “I’m curious, what are your thoughts on this?”

·         “I’m wondering, what would happen if…”

·         “What comments would you like to add?”

·         “What questions do you have for me?”

·         “How does this information fit in with your current plan?”

·         “How do you think this will effect your department, company, etc.?”

·         “How will this approach help your customer?”

·         “If you could create the ideal solution, what would it be?”


Ask a rhetorical question

The rhetorical question is used not to elicit an actual response from the audience, but to provoke thought, call attention to a particular point, or invite deeper involvement in the topic. It is an important tool for keeping the audience engaged.


You can use rhetorical questions with any group of any size. They are especially useful if you are presenting to a large group or simply can’t afford the time to ask direct questions. You can always engage your audience by asking a rhetorical question. For example, you could say to the group:


·         “We would all benefit from this approach, wouldn’t we?”

·         “Doesn’t it make sense to…”

·         “This is an intriguing possibility, isn’t it?”

·         “How do you think your staff would feel if this idea were implemented—pretty good, right?”

·         “Don’t you think everyone would enjoy the experience of _______?”

·         “Isn’t this something we’re all hoping for?”


The idea here is to have your audience answer the question internally. As the presenter you are looking for a “Yes” in the form of a head nod or audible “Uh-huh.” When you see the audience involved again you can be confident that they are back on track.


Use a rhetorical question as a transition

Another good use of the rhetorical question is as a transition technique. That is, you can introduce each new idea of your presentation by asking a rhetorical question and then responding. It’s like conducting your own Q&A. For example:


·         “What do you think will happen if we use this new design? Well, let’s explore that idea…”

·         “Does this approach make sense for a small company such as ours? I think it makes very good sense. Here’s why.”

·         “How can we account for this shortfall? Let’s look at the numbers…”


You can also use the rhetorical question as a technique to imply that you are so well aligned with your audience that you know what’s on their mind. Here are some examples of the “I know what you’re thinking” technique:


·         “I bet you’re thinking this idea is far fetched. Is that right?

·         “You’re wondering about the trade-offs, aren’t you?”

·         “I know you’re waiting for me to get to the solution. Right?”

·         “You’re probably wondering, how did we get into this mess?”

·         “I know what you’re thinking—there has to be an easier way.”

·         “You probably wish we could implement this plan tomorrow.”

·         “You may be asking yourself, why is this important to me?”


The use of the direct and rhetorical question techniques is your first line of defense against a disinterested, bored or disengaged audience. So plan and rehearse your questions in advance and use them throughout your presentation.  If you use direct and rhetorical questions from the start of your presentation you will never have to face a bored and audience. And you’re probably thinking, how soon can I get started, right?



September 17th, 2009 | Permalink | Trackback | Bookmark and Share

4 Responses to Prompt Your Audience to Respond: Ask Questions!

  1. Olivia Mitchell

    Hi Angela
    Great article about using questions - I particularly like the idea of using rhetorical questions as transitions.

    But… I find that I bristle a bit when a speaker says things like ” I know what you’re thinking…”
    I find it a bit arrogant. This could be a cultural difference - I’m interested to see what other people think.

  2. Laura Bergells

    I like to ask questions. It can lead to interesting discussions. It can also ferret out areas that are unclear.

    I tend to avoid “Yes or No” questions, though — rhetorical or otherwise. I’ve seen too many instances where all the speaker gets is a shrug or a forced, “Yeeeessss, teacher….”

    And Olivia, I, too, bristle when someone tells me they know what I’m thinking. They almost never do!

    But then again, that’s not a question, it’s a challenging statement. That’s probably why we bristle! We’re being challenged to admit our hidden mental status!

  3. Public Speaking Tips [2009-09-19]

    [...] DeFinis investigates how to ask questions effectively. We’ve all seen speakers who seem to know exactly how to [...]

  4. Angela DeFinis

    Hi Olivia and Laura,
    Thank you for your comments and you’ve both triggered my thinking on this! I have used the “I know what your thinking” technique-often and have coached my clients to use it as well.-and I’ve never had a negative response! But as I think more about your comments I can understand in writing why the technique itself might make you bristle. I’m wondering if much depends on “how” it it delivered. I don’t think of it as a “challenging” statement as you suggest, Laura but as more of a “coaxing” statement one might use to create energy and entice response if said in a playful, affable way. This technique is designed to create not inhibit connection so the “how” is important. Do you think the “how” might make a difference to you? Thank you for making me think!

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