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Nov 1, 2019 - 2 minute read - Comments - advice

How to encourage people to ask questions

One cool trick to get an audience to ask more questions: Silence inspires questions.

When you ask “Any questions?” be silent for least 10 seconds for someone to speak up. 15 seconds is better.

Ever been giving a presentation or just talking at a meeting and, when you pause to ask “any questions?” nobody speaks?

It is tempting to just assume that nobody has questions and move on.

You probably waited 5 seconds and gave up. To the speaker, 5 seconds seems like a long time. The reality is that people won’t speak up for the first 10 seconds; longer if you are on a video conference system.

Why?

In the first few seconds people’s brains are just catching up with the last thing you said. The audience lags behind the speakers because it takes time to digest new info.

The next few seconds people are deciding if they have a question. Then formulating the question takes a few seconds more.

Now people are waiting to see if someone else will go first. It takes a few seconds to confirm nobody else is speaking.

If you are using a video conference system, people need a few seconds to find the unmute button. (Using Google Meets? Add a few more seconds because they require an inordinate amount of fiddling to unmute.)

All this adds up to about 10-12 seconds.

Therefore, if you want people to ask questions, pause and wait 10-12 seconds.

As the speaker, 12 seconds feels like 12 hours. It is very tempting to give up after 5-6 seconds and move on. I assure you that it does not feel like an eternity to the audience.

Silence inspires question-asking.

I learned this from a teacher. She taught me to actually count in my head: 1… 2… 3….

I recently gave this advice to a coworker just before she gave a talk. When she paused for questions I counted in my head too. When I got to ten 3 people burst out with questions at the same time. I laughed out loud (luckily I was on mute). Brains are very predictable. If she had waited 5 seconds, she would have missed those three questions.

Try it the next time you are asking a group of people if they have questions.