Asking effective questions is one of those annoying skills that looks easy until you try it in a presentation for children or families. Posing the right questions can keep them engaged; allow them to mentally process their ideas; offer them a break from your delivery; give them a sense of ownership about what happens; and provide feedback about their interest and understanding.
When implementing these questioning techniques, bear in mind the all-audience interaction principles from Tool 4. But remember that in interacting with an individual, your character and intentions become much more visible for the group to read. You need to be even more sensitive to the needs and personality of an individual questioner or respondent than you do when interacting with the whole audience.
In this tool, we’ll explore how to manage the interactions around asking and receiving questions. Being able to compose powerful questions is a separate, but critical, skill for any educator.
“The wise man is not he who gives the right answers; he is the one who asks the right questions.”
Claude Lévi-Strauss (scientist)
Ask questions strategically
Questions are important in interactive presentations, but asking them and managing the replies consumes more time than novice presenters expect.
For that reason, most questions educators ask in large group presentations are short with simple, factual answers. These create a sense of responsiveness whilst giving up minimal control over the direction of the presentation. The younger the group, the more questions they will generally tolerate being asked without thinking you are being demanding. For example, with 5–7-year-olds, it may be possible to conduct almost an entire show with a series of short, directive questions and answers.
It is also possible to deliver an interactive presentation which asks fewer questions, but at a much deeper level. In this format, the audience are often allowed time to discuss their ideas with their neighbour. As with each of the techniques in this book, you need to use your professional judgement to assess how much the technique helps you achieve your particular purpose against the time and control it sacrifices.
Craft your questions in advance
Asking effective questions off the top of your head is possible with experience, but the majority of your questions will be planned. Clear questions require thought to devise and their precise phrasing can only be honed through repeated delivery. Keep revising them to reduce the opportunities for the audience to misunderstand you. Every word and nuance of the question matters, so most of your enquiries will become fixed lines in your scripts.
Use a variety of question types
The most common way of classifying questions is to distinguish between closed enquiries (which have a limited range of short, factual answers, e.g. “What do you call the longest side of a right-angled triangle?”) and open questions (which have a rich range of possible responses, often including opinions, e.g. “Why do some young people start taking drugs?”)
Most of your questions as a presenter will be closed, but, where possible, try to introduce variety by occasionally posing more open-ended questions. This diversity is not just for engagement — the different types of enquiry can address the specific purposes you have set for the presentation, e.g.
- reinforcing vocabulary with short call and response drills;
- asking an open-ended question to stimulate debate around their attitudes to a subject;
- provoking their imaginations by posing a creative question which encourages them to solve a problem by thinking laterally.
“My investment of time, as an educator, in my judgment, is best served teaching people how to think about the world around them. Teach them how to pose a question. How to judge whether one thing is true versus the other.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson (science communicator)
Pose one question at a time
Although this advice sounds obvious, a common mistake we make as new presenters is unintentionally merging our questions. Or, when we’re trying to make up for lost time in a presentation, we ask one question and then immediately follow it up with a different enquiry if we don’t get an instant response.
Avoid questions which require telepathy
Presenters sometimes pose questions which are akin to asking their learners to “guess what’s inside my head”. To the educator who has asked this before, there is a clear answer. They have become blind to the other possible solutions. Yet, the learners can see a range of viable answers, which they have to suggest, until they reach the desired “answer” by elimination. This can be a frustrating and demotivating game for them.
Build the difficulty of your questions
Learners, especially younger children, like to show-off and share their knowledge. They are intensely proud of what they have learnt. Another engagement benefit of asking questions is to empower your audience. So, ask questions at the start of the presentation which you know, from experience, will be within the ability of most of your learners. These need respondents to take a smaller risk when they volunteer an answer. They get to recall and rehearse their knowledge, and when they are declared correct, this will grow their confidence in the subject.
It is easy, though, to patronise them if you start at a level which they feel is too low for them. Falling into this trap reveals your inexperience of interacting with that age group and this can affect the confidence they have in you. As the presentation proceeds, you can begin to introduce more challenging, higher-order questions to stretch them. Always be wary, however, of judging the understanding of an entire audience based on the correct replies of the few children who have confidently raised their hands. Many educational presenters fall prey to this self-deception.
Monitor with checking-in questions
You can use short checking-in questions at those parts of the presentation which are harder to grasp, e.g. “Does that make sense?” or “Have I explained that clearly enough?”
Spectators are usually embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand in public and, equally, they don’t want to be seen to be too critical of your attempted explanations. So, try to convey through your words and body language that you want them to be honest and that you won’t be offended by their reply.
The most helpful clues from these sensitive requests are often their nonverbal responses. However, you need to listen to and respond to their reactions or they will stop bothering to give you this feedback.
Ask some questions that don’t need a verbal answer
Questions are such a powerful device that the mere act of posing one rhetorically triggers learners to try to answer it inside their head — even if they know, from your intonation, that no response is needed. For example, “Have you ever wondered what your life would have been like living through The Great Plague of London?” or “You know that feeling when you’re squashed in the back seat when the car goes round a roundabout slightly too fast?”
There are lots of ways of using these prompts strategically in your presentation without overdoing them, e.g. to draw them into engaging in a mentally more active way; to acknowledge a thought you suspect most of the audience will be having at that moment; to be evocative and to help persuade them; to manage a change in direction for the presentation; to challenge an idea; and for variety.
If you are going to offer an answer to your own question, it’s important to leave a pause for the audience to reflect and think of their response first. And if you’re going to leave the question hanging, make sure it isn’t so absorbing that it derails their attention for the rest of the presentation.
Rhetorical questions work better with slightly older audiences. Young children will struggle at recognising these kinds of enquiries and often can’t help themselves from replying to them out loud.
One way of countering the limited nature of questions in most large presentations is to let the audience think about a question individually, then briefly discuss their ideas with their neighbour, and finally allow selected pairs to share their conclusions with the rest of the audience (known as think-pair-share). But like any group work, this process needs to be carefully managed if their discussions are to be relevant, considered and well-informed.
As part of a presentation, this discussion needs even better management than in the more intimate setting of a workshop. Children love any opportunity for social interaction. The novelty of being able to talk to their neighbour during a presentation is such an engaging opportunity, that you must plan a way of timing these exchanges and of quickly “getting them back” before you release this amount of control, e.g. a visual and auditory countdown cue on a screen or with your fingers.