When I speak, I have a tendency to ask a lot of questions. I do this for at least three reasons. First, to check in with the audience and keep them engaged. Second, to help them see that they aren’t alone. Third, to learn something about the audience so I can tailor my message (if needed) and meet their needs.
Sometimes, I’ll ask a question where I have no idea what the answer really is. For instance, I once asked a group of graduating students if they used Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I admit, I expected a pretty even spread – thinking each person would likely use all or use none. Instead, I found many Facebook users, some LinkedIn, and very few who used Twitter. Because of this, I made a change in another part of my speech where I originally had a 140 character comment.
Other times, I’ll ask something I’m sure of just to get the audience on the same page about something. In a number of toastmasters presentations, I’ll ask if members joined to improve speaking skills, or leadership skills. In my experience, this question results in a much higher degree of “speaker” answers.
Last week, an audience threw me a curve ball. I asked a variation of the previous question, which usually has a 100% successful result. “Raise your hand if you joined Toastmasters to help others improve their communications skills.” I always get zero hands on this question. The point I lead to is that while “all of us” joined to improve our own skills, many of us have found that helping others to improve leads to greater improvement in ourselves.
Saturday, someone raised their hand.
“You joined Toastmasters to help others be better speakers?”
“yeah” (serious look)
Honestly, this is one of the things I appreciate most about Toastmasters. I can look like a total bonehead in front of my audience, and they’ll usually cut me enough slack so I can recover.
“really? … Well … Most of us joined…”
Bonehead. (I know she was thinking it)
What do you do when the audience throws you a curve ball? Especially when it’s something you’ve practiced, and/or used in a number of previous speeches.
One option is to roll with it. Don’t assume you’ll get 100% agreement on any answer, even “do you breathe air?” questions.
Another – expand on the surprise. “No way! That’s never happened before!!” Be careful with this one. Just because they didn’t respond as you expected doesn’t mean they want you to make a big deal about it. You may insult them without even meaning to.
Lastly, congratulate them. This is another one that can’t be used in the wrong context. But, it can be either really funny or really sincere. You could even defer it, “If there’s time, I may ask you more about that later.”
Asking questions can be a powerful way to connect with your audience, drive your point home, and even learn something yourself. Just remember that making assumptions about their responses can lead to bad results. It’s best if you prepare yourself for the most likely possibilities, not just the one possibility.
If you do get surprised, remember to just roll with it so you can stay on track, and not look like a bonehead.