How to Engage Your Audience with Questions

Why start and sometimes end your speech with questions?

Questions engage your audience by causing them to think.   Questions can tap into prior knowledge.  Questions can challenge assumptions.  Questions can be used as a bridge to the next segment of your presentation. Questions take your audience from passive listeners to engaged participants.

Here’s the top mistake that some speakers make when asking questions:  they don’t personalize the question. If you want to make your audience members feel as if you are speaking to them individually, use the specific  “you “and “your”  and not the general “anyone” or “anybody”  when you ask questions.

Say, “Do you want to make more money?”  and not,  “Does anyone here want to make more money?

Let’s look at two basic types of questions:  rhetorical and response.

Rhetorical Questions. A rhetorical  question is a thought-provoking question for which you do not actually want a response.  A rhetorical question can arouse curiosity and motivate people to try to answer the question, causing them to pay close attention to what you say next.  So, if I start a speech with “What does it mean to be human?”  I am using the question as a set-up.  I might even follow it with a series of rhetorical questions, “Does it mean . . .? Does it mean . . .? Does it mean . . .?” that I then answer in the course of the speech.   I might even end with a rhetorical question, “So, are you merely going to be a human being or are you going to be human?”

You can also use rhetorical questions as story openers to set the stage for a story.  “Have you ever stood up to give a speech in front of 200 people, looked at the audience and had your mind go completely blank?  That’s what happened to me . . .”

Audience Response Questions.  Here are a few types of questions that require a response:

  1. Raised hands. You can handle this by stating, “Raise your hand if you . . .” Or, “By a show of hands  . . .(and then raise your hand up high to encourage hand raising).  You can also just ask the question, “Have you ever . . . ?” and gesture to the audience with an open hand before you raise your hand.  The open hand appeal invites them to answer and the raised hand models what you want them to do. It helps to nod at the audience while you ask the question.

 2. Audience members answer.  Let’s say you want to have an audience member or two actually answer the question.  This can be risky, especially near the beginning and I don’t suggest it as on opening move if you haven’t already established rapport. Even if you have a good audience connection, make sure it is an easy question and extend your open hand toward the audience as you ask it.  What if nobody answers the question?  Definitely be prepared for that possibility.  You could seed the audience ahead of time with one or two people who will answer.  You could make eye-contact with someone, raise your eyebrows and extend your hand directly at the person and ask him or her specifically to answer (only do this if the person’s body language indicates high engagement).  You could say something funny like, “I’m not going to grade your answer!” which will loosen people up.

3. Audience echo.  This takes guts and practice, but can be extremely memorable when used throughout the speech and at the end.  Let’s say you have a short foundational phrase or even a single word for your speech that you want people to remember.  You can repeat the phrase or word several times as an answer to a question and then have the audience respond with the phrase or word when you ask the question.

For example, if I were giving a speech on sales attitude and I wanted to get the idea across that you can’t dwell on rejection; I might have a foundational word, “Next!”   I would probably tell 3 short stories illustrating 3 common sales situations in which I use the phrase “Next!” At the end of each story, I would have the audience practice saying “Next!” in response to a question related to that story.  At the end, I would wrap up with the same 3 questions, one right after another, gesturing to the audience as a cue to say “Next!”   And then make a concluding call to action using the foundational word/phrase.  “What do you say when you can’t get past the gatekeeper? . . . (audience) Next!  What do you say when someone says “No”? . . . (audience) Next!   What do you say when you want to quit? . . . (audience) Next!  Don’t dwell on the past, but look to the future and say,  . . .“Next!”(audience response)\

For your next presentation, engage your audience with questions!