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November 01, 2011

Training Tip 17: Asking Questions: Why?

Training Tips Columns 10 through 13 dealt with answering audience questions, so let’s look at the other side. Asking questions is a powerful, yet often underutilized tool. Skilled questioning can create multipe benefits.

Qualifying the Audience

The first opportunity for questions is at the beginning of a training session. Some trainers use questions to “qualify” an audience. They ask the audience questions about their background and what they hope to get out of the session.

Ideally, the trainer will be flexible enough to take what they learn into account and customize the training on the fly. However, even if you are not that flexible, showing interest in the audience can help create a favorable impression.

Some Reasons to Ask Questions

At the simplest level, questions break the monotony. Instead of the same voice droning at the front of the room for an hour, other voices are heard, different rhythms, different timbres, different approaches.

Thoughtful questions can make audiences pay more attention to the program. They transform audience members from passive receptacles of your gems of wisdom into thinkers, at least temporarily, as they try to figure out an answer.

Sometimes questions can be a way of presenting an idea without taking complete ownership of it. The question puts the idea out there, without a formal endorsement by the trainer. For example, in Training Tip Column 7, Should You Have Handouts?, I quoted an ethics trainer who proffered this excuse for not having handouts:

"Distributing handouts would make the audience remember the presentation better, so I could not use the same material next year."

This excuse is so pernicious that it must be thoroughly discredited, but in a live training session for ethics trainers it is probably better for the instructor not to pile on. Give the audience the opportunity to explain why the excuse is so poor.

The Power of Answers from the Audience

The “highest and best use” I have found for questions is emphasizing a particularly important teaching point. In fact, I sometimes try to structure a presentation so that it will be a member of the audience—not me--who first articulates the most important idea.

This is particularly valuable when the idea is controversial or there is some reason to expect that some in the audience will be predisposed to reject it. If the instructor prepares the moment properly, when an audience member first states the idea, it will seem more persuasive. It’s not just some crazy idea the guy standing in front of the room is trying to foist on the group, it’s coming from a presumed peer in the audience.

A savvy instructor will build on this by repeating the concept and endorsing it, and perhaps the person who preferred it. Another way of reinforcing the idea is to ask the audience member to repeat or explain it. Repetition is the educator’s ally.

There are plenty of reasons why asking questions is a good idea. Next month we'll consider how to ask questions effectively.

Provide your suggestions and examples in the Comments section below. Biographical information about our Training Tips columnist is available.

Posted by J. Lawson in Training Tips | Permalink

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