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December 01, 2011

Training Tip 18: Asking Questions: How?

Question Techniques

Some instructors avoid questioning the audience because they fear they will lose control. There is little to fear if you have a few basic techniques in your repertoire.

Come across as genuine and brightly optimistic that the students will be able to answer the question. I like to provide cheerful encouragement like “I know you are not going to disappoint me.” If responses are slow in coming, provide hints.

Treat any reasonable attempt at a response positively. Be generous with praise and steer the discussion in the desired direction. For example, “That is a very clever approach, but it may not be the best for this situation. Does anyone else have an idea?”

Praising those who proffer answers emboldens others to contribute, but even better, it subtly encourages everyone to try to give “good” answers that will earn further praise from the authority figure in the room (you).

I've had good results holding students' attention by sprinkling in a few Jeopardy-type questions on interesting topics. This can work even if the questions don’t have all that much to do with standards of conduct. For example, if I’m using the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to illustrate a point (see example at the end of this article below), I will note, “By the way, one famous politician reported that this was his favorite movie. Who remembers this prominent political figure?” The answer amuses those in the audience old enough to remember Dan Quayle.

The possibility of learning more amusing/enlightening trivia motivates at least a few members of the audience to pay closer attention than they otherwise might.


Some public speaking books recommend that an instructor who is stumped by a difficult question should turn it back on the audience. This makes a lot of sense in some situations. If you are a lawyer teaching a group of other lawyers in your organization, you may be more of a peer than an authority figure.

In other settings, the reverse-the-question technique is dubious. When you are teaching standards of conduct classes, you are supposed to be the expert, the authority figure. Passing some types of questions to the audience can reduce the group's respect for you. It’s usually better to respond with the time-honored gambit of offering to look up the answer.

Don’t give the appearance of being disrespectful toward an audience member. This will not merely deaden the crowd by making others less likely to contribute, but it will make the audience (who identifies with their peers in the group) resent you.

Final tip. Well, not exactly a tip, more like an example of what to avoid. At all costs, don’t emulate the soul-deadening of actor Ben Stein, playing an economics teacher in this YouTube clip from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Here’s a transcription for those who can’t access You Tube:

In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the... Anyone? Anyone?... the Great Depression, passed the... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill? The Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act? Which, anyone? Raised or lowered?... raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone? Anyone know the effects? It did not work, and the United States sank deeper into the Great Depression. Today we have a similar debate over this. Anyone know what this is? Class? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone seen this before? The Laffer Curve. Anyone know what this says? It says that at this point on the revenue curve, you will get exactly the same amount of revenue as at this point. This is very controversial. Does anyone know what Vice President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. "Voodoo" economics.

Posted by IEC Team Leader in Training Tips | Permalink