Can you force questions on an audience?

by Scott | 6/29/2009

Here’s a question from the mailbag:

Last week I held a presentation to my company (around 60-70 people). My strategy for the post-lunch session was to keep the audience involved by asking questions. This was to prevent people from falling asleep from the food coma.

What I did was have a slide with a question, ask the audience, see what came up, and then reveal the answer I had in mind. I got a few interesting answers and it felt like it was partially keeping people from falling to food coma. Afterwards I got some appreciative comments from programmers who attended both about the contents and about the style of the presentation.

One problem:  Our CTO thought that the way I’d asked questions when I already had the answers prepared was demeaning. He felt strongly about this in terms of “that’s something you just don’t do”.  To me, I wouldn’t be standing there holding a presentation if I didn’t think I had answers that not everyone in the room did. Asking people to think about things rather than spoon-feeding them “truth”, to me, is a way to help the process of learning.

What do you think?

There are few things “you just don’t do” as every audience is different and the rules change depending on what they’re expecting, and how good you are at using a technique.  So it’d be rare I’d ever say “you can never ever do X”.

It’s also important to realize there are many ways to reveal those answers, some which might be demeaning (“you guys were too stupid to say things like this”) but others that are entertaining, interesting and enlightening (“Here’s what I had, but your answers were better for these 2 reasons, except that you missed…”).  So how you do it is as important as what you do.

The main problem I see is whether the questions you were asking were what the audience wanted to learn.  I’d rather do one of these:

  1. Ask 5 or 6 people who were going to be in the audience ahead of time what their actual questions were and use them instead of guessing.
  2. Only ask them questions that reflect something I’d taught them in the lecture.  So after demonstrating how to do long division, I’d give them an easy long division problem. Then the questions tests my ability to teach as much as it tests what they know.  Any wrong answers means I failed, not the audience.

In the end the CTO is entitled to his opinion, but it’d be wise to have the opinions of the audience recorded in some simple way so his perspective is informed by what the majority felt.  Having a better way to judge the value of a session is probably the best problem to solve here.

4 Responses to “Can you force questions on an audience?”

  1. A.J. Pape Says:

    I’ve been doing presentations, training and facilitation for about 20 years and you completely nailed this Scott.

    Looking forward to reading more of your nutritious nuggets.

  2. Krishna Says:

    I would tend to agree with the CTO. Asking questions has the potential for more harm and less benefit when giving talks. You can try a different approach, but the problem is that it is not a high-percentage game.

    The fundamental problem is that your audience has many people who are just not comfortable putting themselves in the public eye. This is disguised by the fact that some of your audience do like it – they like to interact with you, even have a conversation during the talk if they could. But most don’t.

    So what happens when you ask a question? It puts people on the spot. Worse, a good speaker is supposed to make eye contact with members of his audience. And so a question + eye contact makes it very uncomfortable for some audience members.

    A question also creates a dilemma for some people. They could get the answer wrong (especially if the question is vague, open-ended or worse a trick question) and embarrass themselves. I have seen some clueless speakers even laugh at some answers from sincere-minded participants.

    A speech is a speech. Find a better way to engage participants than this risky tactic.

  3. Scott Says:

    Krishna: It’s not clear at all how the majority of the audience responded, which is my point. You do not know that “many people are not comfortable putting themselves in the public eye” since neither you nor I were there.

    I’ve seen companies where 60 to 70 person meetings are quite informal and casual. I wouldn’t say this is the majority of environments, but it’s certainly not rare.

    And again, a good speaker who handles questions carefully and goes out of their way to make it safe and fun can make the session formal and interactive even in companies or cultures where people tend to be uptight.

    If these are regular sessions the best answer is to have a better way to evaluate how the audience rates the sessions.

  4. Mike Nitabach Says:

    The CTO is a fool. Socratic dialogue is a well-established and extremely effective pedagogical approach.

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