We discussed about how to generate questions when attending a presentation in Part 1 and Part 2. If you haven’t read this previous blogposts or need a refresher, click on the link.
Preparation On Both Sides
While preparing for the previous blogposts, I stumbled across several sources, all of them focusing on which questions to prepare for when presenting.
At first, I was focused on extracting the common pieces of information for the opposite side, aka preparing questions as the audience. Now that this has been discussed in Part 2 (and most likely in the future as I refine the Endless Question Generator), I thought about revisiting these sources and summarise the questions you definitely need to prepare as a presenter.
So let’s see what those questions are.
Questions Recommended to Prepare for
As the Endless Question Generator showed, there is a certain structure to the vast majority of questions you may face as a presenter. As indicated on some sources (https://tressacademic.com/audience-questions/), there are some questions you should prepare the answer for as they are likely to be asked.
What was the point? Remind the audience about the key points of your presentation and the reason it might interest them.
What’s next? Indicate what you intent to work on next, showcasing how live this project is.
How have you done this? This is asking for clarification on the methodology you followed in your work. Clarify it.
What do you mean by this? This is more a definition issue. Make sure that all terms are adequately chosen and clear for the intended use.
The best remains to rehearse your presentation with a colleague (or at least record yourself). I’m sure you’ll do well in your presentation.
And which questions do you usually prepare for or have faced in your experience?
Forewords: this blogpost constitutes the continuation of this Part 1 on ‘Asking Questions at Presentations’. Feel free to read this introductory post first, which covers the motivation for these posts.
Shall I Dare to Ask?
First of all, there is no stupid question.
If something is obvious, it means that either the presentation or its context wasn’t explained clearly enough. Presentaterw assume a certain background from their audience and this can be often miscommunicated. A question about what may seem an obvious contextual point may in fact reveal a deeper misunderstanding by either the rest of the audience or the presenter themselves.
Furthermore, presenters are often way more stressed than their audience. Questions about their presentation is thus received as a confirmation that their presentation capture the attention of audience, transforming their ordeal into a worthwhile experience. You never know, a good question may even serve as an effective icebreaker for later conversation off the stage.
So take your chance!
But What to Ask?
Similarly to a lot of skills, training makes the answer to this question eventually more obvious.
The trick is to keep asking questions at every occasions (like my colleague suggested in Part 1) by using some box-standard questions like “Why have you chosen this methodology?” or “What is next in this project?”. Eventually, your ability to ask questions will sharpen and find more advanced and tailored questions to ask. Again the key message remains that, by aiming to ask at least one question, your attention to the content of the presentation is innatly enhanced and details or patterns will more naturally emerge.
But let’s see if I can help you with some starter questions first.
Looking for a Idea Generator
While searching for resources on online writing, I came across this very interesting concept: ‘the Endless Idea Generator’ (see picture below) from Ship30for30; a 30-day writing challenge with loads of tips about online writing. You can either follow their Twitter account or subscribe to their free newsletter from their website.
The neat concept here consists in mixing three categories: “What do you want to write about?”, “Proven approach”, and “Credibility”. As much as this is not going to make you win a Pullitzer prize, this is definitely a great starting point, especially when you are short on ideas or facing the dreaded writer’s block.
So this inspired me to create a similar framework about asking questions at presentations.
The Endless Question Generator
This framework (see picture below) aims to help in creating your first questions when none are coming to your mind in time.
You start with the classic five W-questions: What, Where, When, Why, hoW. The ‘What‘ question focuses on a detail of the presentation. The ‘Where‘ and ‘When‘ point towards location in space or time. The ‘Why‘ questions motivations and reasoning. The ‘How‘ is often associated with methodology.
Then you choose a Context or Theme. You could ask about the motives of the work, whether they are internal or external, or based on a starting point or end goal. Another theme revolves around the potential applications of this project; if they puzzle you or you have an idea about one, then enquire the presenter. Presentations also include a lot of definitions, sometimes clearly mentioned, often implied. If a term or concept is not clear to you, ask! Most likely half of the audience didn’t understand it either. Furthermore, if you know of similar works, you can ask for the viewpoint of the presenter about how they compare. Moreover, a project often uses data and a methodology to arrive at results or products, both of these points can be questionned either for their validity or how they have been chosen / implemented. Finally, you can enquire about the outcomes and what comes after this project. It can be in the form of future works after this project or the lessons learnt from this study.
Finally, your question can be angled with a reason of why you are asking it in the first place. These can range from the simplest reason where you need a clarification on a point mentioned (or not) during the presentation to sharing your knowledge on a similar work and wish to get the take from the presenter. A presentation may make sense on its own but could be hard to contextualise it in the wider context of how it connects with either other ongoing projects or its own start/end points. The methodology and results are always endless sources of (heated) discussions about which one is the most appropriate or the impact on the results one would get from the data or its influence on the collected data itself.
Remember, that preparing your questions (whether from this template or tailored to the presentation) will always pay off. So read about the presenter and advertised content beforehand, and pay attention to both the details and the big picture during the presentation. All these points will make you a better audience and position you in a better light with the presenter (or worse light if you intend to be controversial!), potentially leading to cooperation and more idea sharing.
[What/motivation/clarification] What motivated you to start this project?
[Why/definition/similar project] Why did you decide to define this term in this way when another project did it another way?
[Where/data acquisition/cooperation] Where did you acquire this data? We would like to use the same data, please.
[Who/future works/contextualise] Who will benefit from the outcome of this work?
[How/lesson learnt/clarification] How are you going to disseminate the learning from this project?
As you can see, there are an endless list of questions, which can be generated from this framework.
Eventually, after training numerous times with this framework, you should be able to come up with your own questions; possibly graduating beyond the W-questions into W-less questions such as “Have you considered comparing your results with this particular study since the correlation A with B is less obvious here given that condition C is not longer present?”.
I’ve tried this fact sheet with project students during our weekly meeting and it turned out to be quite successful. This obvious still requires quite a bit of tuning, especially as this blogpost illustrates a sustantial amount of explanation is still needed beyond this simple picture. I’ll most likely post a Part 3 of this series when this framework reaches significant updates.
This post managed to start the creation of this guide on ‘Asking questions at a presentation’ by providing a framework on ‘which question to ask’. I will continue to experiment with this guide and come back here with updates.
Do you have any suggestions? Do you plan to use this question generator? If so, what was your experience? I’m looking forward to your feedbacks.
“You should aim to always ask at least one question after a presentation.”
This was word by word the answer provided by a colleague to my interrogation years ago regarding her constant and pertinent questioning after each presentation. One of the many exceptional traits of this colleague was her habit to ask questions and how often these would invite the presenter to share addition insights that the presentation didn’t cover.
This struck me for two reasons. First, my inner self remains deeply rooted on the shy introvert side, often preventing me from interacting directly more with other people. Second, she managed to often ask pertinent questions, even when I couldn’t think of anything to ask due to either purely having misunderstood or already feeling satieted by the presentation.
When I reached out to her, she started explaining she used to feel similar but decided fairly early on in her education to challenge herself to ask at least one question, even if it was an obvious one. Like any regular practices (e.g. this writing challenge), she eventually developed a habit and accompanying skill of more easily coming up with more meaningful questions. This was one of these revealing moments to me and a new habit formed on that day.
Getting more from Presentations
Exercising this habit for some years now, benefits are undeniable.
First, it forces us – the audience – to be more attentive to the presentation. If we know we are going to ask something, we better try to gather materials ask about. This means that our focus is sharper and often our understanding of the presentation is deeper. This is contrasted to the opposite situation where we don’t ask necessarily ask questions, often leading to a mindset locked in the passive audience mode (think watching TV) and only the shallow and easy-to-grab message reaches our mind from the presentation we’ve just attended. This shift from passive to active listener thus already constitutes a simple yet effective mind trick.
Second, performing a presentation implies making editing choices and not all the pieces of information will be showed in an equal way – let alone included at all – due to time and format constraints of the presentation. This means that, as the audience, we are presented with a partial picture of what the full message should be. Questions bring an opportunity to piece together these gaps and often go beyond the initial delivery by the presenter.
Third, asking sensible questions supports your status as an intelligent person in the audience. Eventually, it could serve as an effective icebreakers either with the presenter or a member of the audience, with whom collaborations or further knowledge could be exchanged.
All these feel like a win-win, if done properly.
This post constitutes a first attempt at creating this guide on ‘how to ask questions at a presentation’. I will definitely come back to this topic as experience comes back with more ideas.