Conference Speakers: How To Get Better Questions From Your Audience

When you invest time into a talk – whether you are giving it a big tech conference, a small meetup, or even at an online event – you want to make sure the audience understands what you presented. So you make yourself available for questions. But many times I’ve seen first hand speakers a little frustrated with the lack of quality questions, audience participation, or getting any feedback at all.

There are a number of factors involved here, but wanted to relate some tips that have personally helped me get better audience participation and questions from my talks and meetups (along with observing some favorite speakers of mine do at least some of these things in their presentations). To keep things brief, I’m focusing on only five things.

Tip One: Ask Positive Questions More Often Then Negative Ones

Scenario: Suppose you are at a WordCamp and you are trying to determine in the beginning of your talk if people have ever used WordPress. For many the first natural question might be “how hasn’t used WordPress before?”. Seems fine. But that requires someone to admit not doing something by raising their hand, and putting them on the spot (at least in their mind) or in a defensive mode (“I don’t want to admit that”). I’ve gotten better quality results by asking a more positive-aimed question and seeing who DOESN’T raise their hand (“Who here has any experience with WordPress?”). You would think the act of not raising their hand would give a same “putting me on the spot” but in many cases this seems to put people less in a defensive mode. Try it, and see what kind of results you get.

Tip Two: Be Clear When And How You Are Taking Questions

It’s always a good idea at the beginning of your talk to state when and how you’ll be taking questions. I’ve often seen speakers get sidetracked or distracted by someone attempting to ask a question in the middle of their presentation. You don’t see this often in larger conferences, but more often in smaller settings. I’ve seen this at WordCamps frequently enough.

Stating up front how and when you take questions gives the audience a better chance to prepare their thoughts while keeping your presentation “on track”, at least in your mind. If you decide to take questions at the end of your talk (or during pre-defined periods during the talk), it might give audience members some brief additional time to form their questions better in their head (or better yet, their question might be answered by just listening to the rest of your presentation).

Putting your presentation online (along with maybe even a dedicated custom page of your slides and resources) and pointing to that URL at the start of your talk has it’s advantages too. If someone asks or off-topic or deep question, this gives you an option to quickly say “the information on that URL has the answer or can guide you there, and if not reach out to me”. Takes 10 seconds to say, and you can move on to the next question or taking point.

Also, in an attempt to avoid the “i don’t have a question as much as a comment/statement” questions (if someone in the audience says this, high chance at least one person in the room is rolling their eyes) you might want to also state that you are looking for brief questions, otherwise you’ll be available after the talk. Which brings me to…

Tip Three: Be Available After Your Talk To Take Questions/Comments/Feedback

I’ve seen people literally get to a conference an hour before they speak, get up and speak, and have to either leave the venue or otherwise become unavailable. When you can, try to be available after your talk.

WordCamps have “Happiness Bars” or rooms set aside for semi-private conversations. If you have access to a WordCamp organizer, ask them if they can encourage the practice of setting aside space at the “Happiness Bar” or some other easy to find location where you can have further discussions. This way you aren’t trying to answer multiple questions within those last few minutes as you are trying to “close it down” and get off the stage before you go over time.

Tip Four: Be Approachable

This one was debatable to add, because honestly it depends alot on your personality and how your audience perceives you. Some speakers have different levels of approachability, so just be┬áconscious of yours. Do you say in your presentation something along the lines of “i would love to have a discussion about (your subject) with you (the collective you)” or “please reach out to me for kindly discussion on (medium of your choice)”?

Make sure ways to reach out to you that you desire to be known are clearly visible in your slides (at the beginning, at the end, or both). Some speakers use custom contact forms that they point to specifically for the conference they are speaking at. I’ve even seen speakers a tech events hand out physical feedback forms.

If you desired communication and feedback, make it easily both physically and emotionality for your audience to do so.

Tip Five: Be Interactive

This isn’t always possible depending on what subject you are speaking about, how you are delivering the talk, etc. However I’ve seen recently some speakers get an increased benefit of having some part of their presentation interactive with their audience. This can come from the form of taking a survey or poll with raised hands in the audience (see tip one) but you can also try “crowdsourcing” questions or do inglive polls (audience responds with their smart phones while you continue to speak).

Some applications and sites like Sli.do or Mentimeter do this. Kahoot offers some really nice fun and interactive options, including turning some part of your presentation into a gameshow (if you wanted to).

That’s All Folks

There are other ways and methods, but I thought these were the five biggest ones that not every speaker may be aware of or needs reminders for.

David Bisset

David is a full-time freelancer who specializes in WordPress (and BuddyPress) for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and everything in between. Organizer of WordCamp Miami for 10+ years.

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