In elementary school, most of us asked questions which were for purely informational purposes. A raise of the hand usually got the attention of the teacher and the question was treated matter-of-factly. In training however, questions from the audience are rarely asked and when they are, they don't get the attention they deserve. However, these questions, along with other indicators, can give a trainer an abundance of information to analyze their audience. It is crucial that trainers take these questions and other indicators seriously to avoid having their presentations become one-sided.
In training, audiences don't just ask questions because they want information. In fact, simply needing information actually represent a small percentage of the motives behind audience questions. For example, an audience member is likely to ask a question because they may want to lead you and the discussion in a different direction. Someone might use a question to tell you something that they know. A trainee also might ask a question simply out of need for attention.
An audience's four basic reasons for asking questions are: to get feedback, to stimulate discussion, to provoke thought, and to maintain interest. Mishandling questions can destroy an effective talk. Always prepare for questions by knowing both your topic and the audience, and anticipate areas for potential questions. When answering questions be concerned with the whole group. Never let one person dominate; repeat or rephrase questions for the entire group. If you do not know an answer, admit it, but do try to find the answer or advise the person who asked the question where the answer might be found. An excellent technique for involving the group is encouraging others in the group to respond to questions.
Trainers are often asked questions when they haven't asked the audience for them. This often catches trainers off guard, but may alert them to an area unintentionally left out of the presentation, or alert them to a new area of audience interest. Such an unsolicited question can throw a trainer off balance, but there are methods for handling it. First of all, prepare completely in advance. Survey possible questions which might arise and come equipped with the answers. When a question is asked, listen carefully and think while it is being asked. Repeat the question to be sure that all have heard it. Pause before answering in order to concentrate. Try to draw the questioner out further if necessary. Although the best answer to a question may be another question, make sure that you never argue with an audience member. Finally, after answering the question, return as soon as possible to your main thought sequence.
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CEO, A.E. Schwartz & Associates, Boston, MA., a comprehensive organization which offers over 40 skills based management training programs. Mr. Schwartz conducts over 150 programs annually for clients in industry, research, technology, government, Fortune 100/500 companies, and nonprofit organizations worldwide. He is often found at conferences as a key note presenter and/or facilitator. His style is fast-paced, participatory, practical, and humorous. He has authored over 65 books and products, and taught/lectured at over a dozen colleges and universities throughout the United States.