One of the best ways to keep your audience engaged is to ask the right types of questions.
Recently, we were asked by a member of our Rule the Room Public Speaking Community to write a blog about how to create good leading questions.
I started to email the answer, and then I realized that this is a topic that all of you probably want to know.
Choose Your Questions Wisely
It’s not just about what types of questions are good questions.
Many of you have learned that.
It’s about how to CREATE those questions.
In general, there are four main types of questions you can use to Rule the Room.
Today’s blog is going to focus on how to create good leading questions and what it can mean for your next presentation.
A leading question is used whenever you want to help the audience understand (or “synthesize”) a challenging concept.
Put in simpler terms, it helps ensure your audience is “thinking” as you are presenting.
This thinking is also referred to as “synthesis”.
In Bloom’s Taxonomy, a classification of learning objectives, synthesis is defined as, “Compiling information in a different way by combining elements in a new pattern or proposing alternative solutions.”
A question that inspires synthesis accesses the right side of the brain.
A leading question that inspires synthesis and gets people to pay attention must meet the following criteria:
- There has to be a right answer.
- The audience has not yet been taught the answer.
- The audience can figure out the answer.
- The answer requires some thought.
For example, once I explain that the left side of the brain stores memories and the right synthesizes, I can ask…
“Which side do you think you access to come up with presentation topics?”
And the audience’s right brain will go to work on an answer.
The question meets all four of the criteria.
When I hear someone in the audience say, “Ooooooh,” I know the person has synthesized what the presenter is saying and arrived at an “aha!” moment.
Aha moments come when people have put together information that’s coming from you with what’s stored in their brains in a new way and then come up with an answer they can express in their own words.
When there is true understanding—and only then—synthesis is possible.
This is exactly what you want and will achieve when you create good leading questions.
When the audience members come up with the answer, they are learning.
When they are learning, you keep their attention.
Asking a question that requires synthesis is one of the most powerful ways to keep an audience’s attention, and good presenters are masters at doing that.
Below is a step-by-step guide to help you create a leading question using an example of Jason’s.
Step 1: Choose a concept or topic
Select something that is challenging to understand in your presentation:
My example: I’m talking about asking leading questions, so that’s my challenging topic.
Step 2: Choose a leading question candidate
Select one of the statements below that, if you were giving a test on this topic, you could use to help you find out if someone understands the concept or topic better.
1. “Explain what it means to…”
2. “Explain why…”
3. “Describe what the effect of…”
4. “Describe what the difference is between and ”
5. “Explain who can…”
6. “Describe where is coming from.”
7. “Explain when ”
8. “Explain when ”
9. “Describe what happens when…”
10. “Describe where/how ”
Did you notice that all of the ten candidates above implicitly contain the words “do you think”—for example, “Explain what [you think] it means to . . .”
A question containing that phrase either implicitly or explicitly prompts them to come up with an original answer based on what they have learned.
Requiring synthesis will keep their attention.
My example: I would choose #8 above to test you to find out if you understood what happens when you ask a leading question.
Step 3: Add your topic
Simply attach your topic to the end of the leading question candidate you chose above.
My example: “Describe what happens when you ask leading questions.”
Step 4: Create your leading question
Turn the statement above into a question by removing the very first word of the statement and adding the worlds “do you think” to the statement to help form a question.
My example: “What do you think happens when you ask leading questions?”
Step 5: Ask the question at the right time
Ask this question sometime during your presentation after you have explained just enough that your audience can figure out the answer, but it still requires some thinking.
If someone in your audience answers your leading question incorrectly, it’s likely your fault.
You probably didn’t lead him or her enough.
Don’t correct the person; simply ask another question with a better hint.
If you get no response at all, you probably asked a leading question that is unanswerable or patronizing.
A leading question is unanswerable if any of the following apply:
It’s too complex or confusing.
Example: “What do you think the engineers at NASA were thinking thirty seconds before launch in 1997?”
How can you possibly know what the engineers were thinking?
There’s no single right answer.
Example: “Is everyone in agreement about this?”
The audience hasn’t enough information to come up with an answer.
If in retrospect you realize your question is unanswerable, then ask an easier leading question (give a bigger hint) or rephrase the question.
A leading question is patronizing if it’s rhetorical or obvious—for example,
“Do you think it’s important to wear a coat in cold weather?”
If you realize from the audience’s lack of response your question is rhetorical or obvious, quickly answer it yourself.
“Do you need to wear a coat in the winter? Of course!”
Continue as if you intended it to be rhetorical.
As you read this, you may think, I don’t ask silly questions, but I bet you do.
I would say three-quarters of the presenters we observe ask at least one question intended to be a synthesis question but that instead confuses or patronizes the audience.
This is dangerous because even if you do this only once, the audience members may stop listening.
Therefore, I suggest you prepare your questions in advance.
I hope this helps you to create leading questions of your own.
If you’d like to know how you’re doing, create a leading question and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post your question on our Facebook page.