Nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman said, "Great poets need great audiences," a statement that's even more true of public speakers. Being a good audience member means more than just turning off your cellphone -- it also means being prepared to ask good questions during the question session following the talk. While the success or failure of the talk depends primarily on the speaker, the success of the question session depends on audience participation.
Write Your Questions
We all have valid ideas or questions that vanish from our minds the instant we are called upon to speak. Avoid this by writing out questions as they occur to you. You do not need to write them out completely and read them verbatim; just make notes that will enable you to recall the substance of the question. As many audience members -- and the speakers -- find cellphones distracting or offensive during speeches, use a pen and small pad of paper for note-taking.
Do Your Research
The more you know about the speaker, the easier it is to formulate intelligent questions. Research the speaker's past to ask questions linking past projects to the topic of the current speech. For example, you might ask businesspeople about how earlier positions or educational experiences led to their current successes. Use your research to be as specific as possible, asking such questions as, "How did your years as a sales manager at ABC Corporation help you turn around XYZ Corporation after its sales declined in the recession of 2011?"
Read Up Beforehand
Read a speaker's published works to help you ask intelligent questions. If the speaker's position has changed from a statement in an earlier publication and the speech, ask the reason for the change. You might ask a fashion consultant: "Four years ago you wrote in your blog that people should never wear navy and black together, but today you said that navy and black can be an elegant combination. What led you to change your mind?" Another type of intelligent question is asking how principles or ideas articulated in an earlier work can relate to the speaker's current projects.
Expand or Clarify
Jot down topics or ideas about which you would like the speaker to expand or clarify. As you listen to the speech, note the points on which you might like more information or the material you found confusing. Most speakers have far more to say about their areas of expertise than they can fit into the time limits of a single speech and are happy to expand and elaborate in question sessions.
Look to the Future
Ask speakers about their future business, research or publication plans. For example, after an academic presentation, ask about follow-up or future research projects that the speaker is planning. Or ask a question based on how the implications of part of the speech show a need for more research or action. You might ask a philanthropist who is trying to help eradicate malaria, for example, what other diseases need attention in the future.
What Makes a Question Intelligent
Sounding intelligent during a question session does not mean showing off how much you know by hijacking the question session to give your own speech. An intelligent question is the query that shows you listened carefully to the speaker and perhaps did some research on the speaker's biography or work. Most importantly, good questions demonstrate that you have the intelligence and courtesy to ask something that leads the speaker to supplement the speech with interesting or useful material, rather than trying to draw attention to yourself or trip up the speaker.
- Poetry Foundation: Initiatives
- Toastmasters International: Helping Others Speak
- Big Think: How to Ask a Good Question at a Public Event
- Times Higher Education: Six Conference Questions Every Academic Hears
- Jobs.ac.uk: The Question and Answer Session at an Academic Conference
- The Naked CEO: How to Ask Great Questions During a Q and A Session
- Photo Credit Noel Hendrickson/Photodisc/Getty Images
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