Presentation Tip: To Engage Your Audience, Ask the Right Questions, in the Right Way, for the Right Reasons

Eleni Kelakos public speaking training


Whether you use them to open your presentation, or drive a point home, questions are a great way to engage your audience.   The right question at the right time can take a presentation to a whole new level of feeling, understanding or insight. Which is why it’s essential to ask the right question, in the right way, for the right reason.

There are, essentially, two types of questions
Question mark dice

1.Questions to elicit a response. I use this type of question when I want to find out specific information and encourage active audience engagement: “How many of you are over six feet tall?” I might ask. Or “Have you ever downplayed your talents, abilities, strengths and desires in order to please someone else? Raise your hand is the answer is yes.”

2.Questions that are rhetorical. Rhetorical questions – which are more of a statement than a question– are often asked as a way to get people to think or ponder. I usually use rhetorical questions when I want my audience to muse upon a key point I’ve just made.  “Think about this for a moment,” I might say:  “How often have you downplayed your talents, abilities, strengths and desires in order to please somebody else?”  Or “Have you ever said no to a potentially career-advancing speaking opportunity because of your fear of public speaking?” When I ask a rhetorical question, I’m not asking for a specific answer, or for a show of hands. I’m asking for my audience to simply contemplate the point at the core of the question.

Your audience relies on you to know the difference between questions you use to elicit a response, and rhetorical questions, and to be clear as possible when asking them. Think of it like this: Your audience views you, the speaker, much like they would if you were playing the kids’ game, Simon Says, and you were Simon:  They look to you for guidance and instruction. Whatever you tell your audience to do, they will do. Conversely, whatever you DON’T tell your audience to do, they won’t do.

For example, if you ask your audience to raise their hand in response to a question, they will do so. If, however, you neglect to tell them to lower their hands afterwards, they will continue to hold their hands awkwardly in the air, confused: Do I keep my hand up? they might wonder Do I take it down? What am I supposed to do?

Equally confusing for your audience is when you mistakenly use a rhetorical question when your intent is to elicit a specific verbal or physical response. “I wonder how many of you are cat owners?,” you might say, and then look expectantly at the members of your audience, who look expectantly back at you. That kind of felt like a question, they might be thinking, but I’m not sure.  What am I supposed to do?

That’s why, when it comes to questions, you must be as clear and specific as specific as possible in the way that you frame them, in the reason for using them, and in the way you’d like your audience to respond to them. The more clear you are, and the less your audience has to work at figuring out what to do, the more your audience can trust you and engage with you.

The best way to find out if you are correct in your choice of questions and clear in your ability to convey the instructions that will help your audience respond without confusion, is to rehearse your presentation with a friend or colleague (or presentation coach, if the stakes are high for this particular presentation).  Ask them to alert you if they feel confused whenever you ask a question, and make adjustments as necessary. Then practice, until the flow of question and instructions feels effortless. And if you’re using a rhetorical question, practice following it with a moment of silence, in order to give your audience time to ponder it.

Remember: The more willing you are to ask the right questions, in the right way, for the right reasons, the more relaxed, engaged and responsive your audience will be–and the more impact you’ll have as a presenter.