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Engage Your Audience With Questions

Updated: Mar 3

When given the opportunity to present our ideas, we all want to perform well, and most of us have heard public speaking advice that suggests we ask our audience a question. However, not all questions have the same impact. Let’s explore how we can make our question asking approach more intentional so we can better capture our audience’s attention, forge connections, and keep them engaged.

Lower-level question asking involves asking audience members to:

  • Raise their hand: “Raise your hand if you have had a bad hotel check-in experience?”

  • Respond to a close-ended question: “Do you feel upset when you have to wait for more than five minutes to check into a hotel?”

  • Make an educated guess: “Guess how much waiting for more than five minutes to check into a hotel hurts your customer satisfaction score.”

These questions aren’t bad, but on their own they create lower levels of engagement.

Higher-level question asking involves:

  • Asking open-ended questions: “How do you feel when you have to wait five or more minutes to check into a hotel?”

  • Reacting in real-time to the responses provided by members of the audience: “I hear you saying ‘frustrated.’ Can you share the last bad check-in experience you remember?”

Imagine we are planning to give a presentation about leadership communication skills and we know we want to engage our audience with questions. We could use the matrix below to understand four types of engagement.

Beginning with a other-centered/close-ended question can be an effective strategy. This type of question is easy and safe for your audience to respond to. Moreover, it allows you to identify active participants and consider a more targeted follow-up question like the other-centered/open-ended question.

Most audience members find it safer to talk in general terms because they want to say what is appropriate (i.e., the correct answer). Since we know complicated topics rarely have a correct answer, a more interesting approach is to ask the audience to indicate or share something about themselves. This is where the audience-centered questions are useful.

Many speakers fear asking any type of question because of the uncertainty it creates. I’m often asked, “What if the audience doesn’t respond the way I planned?” I see moments like this as opportunities to learn where individuals in the room are on a given topic and engage in a dialogue. If you encounter an unruly audience member, I’ve found that asking a different question can get you out of a sticky situation (e.g., Does anyone have a different perspective?).

Finally, speakers set expectations for audience behavior. I had a professor in college who read his lectures to the class off of yellow legal paper. I walked by him on campus in the fifth week of the semester, and he didn’t recognize me because he never looked up from his notes. But one day, in the middle of a lecture, he paused, looked up, and asked the class a question. The room of 30 undergraduates fell silent.

By not engaging with us for the first half of the course, he had established three unwritten rules:

  1. The professor speaks.

  2. Students listen.

  3. Nothing else happens.

When my professor asked us a question, he was violating a clear expectation. And it shouldn’t be surprising that no one responded.

Business presentations work the same way. If you want to engage with your audience, ask questions early in your presentation. This will set the expectation for the type of experience you are creating. And when you ask questions later in the presentation, your audience will be paying attention and ready to connect with you and your ideas.

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