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Chris Bertrand
Chris Bertrand

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Any Questions?

It's the end of a presentation and those famous words are spoken once again, having heard this numerous times, very often the speaker/you are met with silence. You've just spent a week, perhaps longer preparing a presentation, a post or a new tool for people to use, and nobody has any questions about what you've just displayed! Faces are blank, and people make a swift exit. Why is this?

It's because you're doing it wrong!

What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

When you bring people into a room and tell them something new, they may be excited and intrigued, but first they'll feel doubtful, confused and defensive. You don't want to sound silly saying something that doesn't make sense, making you look bad, so most people say nothing at all.

How can we disarm the audience?

As our instincts are always on alert for dangers or threats, we're predisposed to be wary of change. Making sure your audience is relaxed and comfortable is an important first step. Throughout your talk, you will need to coax the audience into small acts of participation. Have you ever noticed, that once someone has spoken up during a presentation, they are inclined to speak up again further down the line, this is not a coincidence, it's the participant becoming accustomed to the speaker and feeling safe and satisfied with how the last exchange went.

I've just finished reading a book that was recommended to me - How to get people to do stuff - by Susan Weinschenk. It's a great book going into the psychology of how people behave and react to your actions, words and cues.

To get people to speak up you will need to follow a set of rules to help that happen.

Susan describes the best presentation she's been to, it was actually a performance by musician Bobby McFerrin; a master of music and in particular extensive audience participation. He does this by bonding the group and taking it slow. Sitting in a room full of strangers you won't want to look silly, but Bobby starts by getting you to sing a single note, he then builds upon that one act asking for a little more each time until everyone is freely participating. I've embedded a Ted talk showing him in action below.

Now I don't expect you to go to these lengths to get the audience to participate with you, but there are some specific things that could help gain traction in future talks.

7 Things you can do to improve audience participation

  • Be sure to let the audience know early on that questions can be asked throughout, unless you specifically don't want them this will improve engagement throughout the talk. Anyone that speaks up during the talk, will have a much higher probability of asking one afterward too.

Questions aren't to be feared. They’re to be embraced.  There’s no better way to connect with an audience than to allow them free rein to ask as many questions as they want.

Joey Asher from Talking Points
  • Start slow, and try and get your group feeling safe. You can use humor to make people feel relaxed, but don’t make fun of people as a form of humor or they’ll start to feel unsafe.
  • Keep your hands open with palms up when asking questions, this means you’re asking for something from the audience. Subconsciously the audience will recognise this and help you out.
  • Ask the group to do one small activity before taking on anything more complex.

There's a reason that ice breakers are so commonly used in group scenarios. When introducing a topic you could ask for a show of hands, or ask anyone if they are aware of what you will be defining. These little steps although minor will encourage people to be more vocal further down the line.

  • When you ask people to do stuff, use nouns rather than verbs. By invoking a sense of belonging to a group, people are much more likely to comply with your request. Gregory Walton has published a great study into this that you can read fully here.

Take this as an example.

When asking someone “How important is it to you to be a voter in tomorrow’s election?” rather than"How important is it to you to vote in tomorrow’s election?” , this simple phrase change was said to have had contributed an 11% increase into whether participants would actually vote!

So perhaps rather than asking,"Does anyone have any questions?"

Try, "Do you have a question" or "What are your thoughts"? Speaking directly to the the individuals in the group?

  • This still might not work, Nobody likes asking the first question, so how about asking it yourself. Prepare a question, discussing something you have may have not covered fully to engage the audience, and make them less self-conscious about asking something that may be off topic.
  • Smile, Breathe and Relax! The audience can read your mood, and as such will be more open to you if you are feeling confident yourself. Speak with passion and enthusiasm, and the audience will be enthused themselves.
  • Let us spin a positive light on this, most of us aren't well versed in speaking to large groups of people. Whilst creating an interesting and engaging presentation is hard enough already, having to think about audience participation seems like an afterthought. Next time a presentation is looming, try using some of the tips noted above when preparing for your talk and see how this changes the engagement with that final question.

    I'd love to hear of any great tips you may have, or any other books you know of that go into this topic further. Here are a few great posts I've found online, whilst writing this. Remember, being witty funny and getting the audience on board will get you a long way!

    Just ask Steve!

    Speaking About Presenting - Question Time

    University of Leicester - Delivering an effective presentation.

    Medium - Best Presentation Ever Post

    Top comments (5)

    eekayonline profile image
    Edwin Klesman

    This is some very useful, solid advice @designpuddle 🙌🏻 Thanks for sharing.

    During my last presentation ( a technical one showing people how to use App Center tests for their mobile apps) I asked a couple of simple questions throughout the presentation, like:

    • Do you recognize this scenario?
    • Do you guys use this tool as well?
    • Have you heard of ....

    I wanted to gain more interaction and integrated those, but now I see why there were so many questions afterwards. It was realy gratifying to get discussions at the end. The questions asked certainly helped gain that "safe zone" feeling.

    Thanks and take care!

    chris_bertrand profile image
    Chris Bertrand

    Thanks for the comment, Edwin, glad you found it useful. It's strange occasionally we do things without fully understanding what impact we had when doing it. Hopefully, this get's us thinking about that aspect of our actions.

    eekayonline profile image
    Edwin Klesman

    True. It's how wars get started, and how love happens.
    Time to get conscious.
    Thanks for adding your bits and bytes into that journey 😅

    lennythedev profile image
    Lenmor Ld

    Thanks for breaking this down. Sometimes I feel like I'm not connecting with some people at the audience during my coding workshops.

    Also since the time is limited, I feel like I'm not welcoming questions enough, for the sake of moving with the material fast.

    I'll definitely include a short ice breaker in my next one.

    chris_bertrand profile image
    Chris Bertrand

    Awesome, glad the article was of use. Let me know how the ice breaker goes down!