The importance of asking questions

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I’ve been giving a lot of presentations recently at work. We’re rolling out a Six Sigma-like cost savings methodology across a large corporate client and so I’ve sat down with groups of 3-30 a couple times per day to explain what it entails. After about 30 iterations, I’ve got the information-giving down pat. But, I’ve given presentations before. What I’ve been reflecting on recently is the importance of asking questions at the end.

Questions are important to help listeners clarify the material, but they also help listeners demonstrate understanding and set themselves apart from the other members of the audience.

I hit the end of the presentation after 20 minutes, which leaves about ten minutes for questions. My audience often take this as an invitation for further information to flow from the presenter to the participants. This is partly true, but not entirely. If, at the end of a presentation, someone’s unclear on some part of what’s been explained, by all means they should ask a question (but only if they’re reasonably certain that their confusion is at least somewhat universal, to avoid wasting everyone’s time. If they can’t tell, they probably should ask later, in private). A well-asked question serves both the questioner and the audience, as they all learn something.

However, a different sort of question is also available. Asking about an implication of the presentation or a subtle detail that might have been overlooked can demonstrate to the presenter that someone has paid attention and is engaged with the material. This can accumulate into awareness if the same person asks that sort of question in several presentations over time. Of course, there’s a danger that the questioner can end up wasting time with a question just meant to score points. It’s a technique to be used sparingly.

Maybe this is all just a cry for greater engagement from my audiences.


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