How can you easily make your guided tours, educational programmes and online sessions more engaging and more interactive? By asking brilliant questions that get results.

When you ask insightful, well-worded questions AND make your participants feel comfortable enough to answer them (employ those facilitation skills), people will respond and you won’t be faced with the terrifying sound of silence.

But how do you ask brilliant questions?

This is a subject that has followed me around over the last 9 years as I’ve spoken to guides all over the world grappling to get to grips with phrasing questions in the best way possible. I once saw a museum guide walking around with a list of ‘good’ questions that she could ask on her tours with visitors. If people are walking around carrying lists of questions, there must be some confusion somewhere. When did it get so complicated?

So, let’s try and simplify it to 4 golden rules (and 1 shortcut!) to asking brilliant questions:

1. Know the difference between open-ended and closed questions AND when to use them

A closed question can be answered with either a single word or a short phrase (either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers, or brief, factual information). 

An open-ended question invites many possible answers and therefore encourages & jump starts discussion. 

a) Closed questions are useful for finding out information and therefore on a guided tour or educational programme can be used in your introduction to find out more about your participants. You can also use them throughout your tour to check in with your guests and to remind yourself of information about your group.

However, use sparingly! Too many closed questions in a row can make a person feel like they are being put on the spot or grilled, so try not to ask more than 2 or 3 closed questions in a row.

Also, beware of asking closed questions that ask for recall of specific information such as ‘Does anyone known in what year was slavery abolished in the Netherlands?’ Worse still would be add on to the end ‘You all know this! You did this at school’. This actually happened on a tour that I was participating in – unfortunately I hadn’t covered this in my school and nor had the rest of the group. None of us felt very good about not knowing this ‘obvious’ question and were reluctant to speak for the rest of the tour. Worth noting – do not assume your group has any prior knowledge of ANY of the subjects you are covering. You need to find out their individual levels (as much as possible) and adjust your content accordingly. (I think there’s a whole separate blog post here!)

These types of closed recall questions will only lead to certain group members answering (if indeed anyone knows the answer) and will do nothing to open up a discussion. I often see guides using this type of question in an effort to introduce more interactivity with groups and it never works. It becomes a ‘who knows the answer’ session and those who don’t know the answer end up feeling considerably less smarter than the guide (which is never a good feeling).

Avoid question ping pong. Instead you are looking for chatting, wondering, puzzling and discussing

💡Tip: Start to pay attention to the questions you are asking your participants on a guided tour. How many closed questions do you ask in a row? Did you just ask a closed-ended question when an open-ended question would have yielded more information for both parties? Don’t worry if you find yourself asking a closed-ended question, you can always open it up at the end for example, ‘If so, please tell me in what ways’.

b) Open-ended questions promote longer answers that originate from knowledge, thoughts, feelings, and experiences. They don’t put people on the spot, instead they allow participants to reveal more or less about themselves, depending on how comfortable they are feeling. They have no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or predictable answers.

Open questions begin with words such as: ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘tell me’:

  • What interests you about …?
  • What do you notice about…?
  • What are the reasons…?
  • What if I was to say….?
  • What questions does that raise for you?
  • What would change if…?
  • What other explanation might there be?
  • How would it be different if… ?
  • How would you describe (this colour, this object etc)?
  • How might this be used? How might this have been used?
  • Why do you say that?
  • Why do you think….
  • Why do you think this has been put together this way?
  • Tell me about…
  • Talk more about that
  • Elaborate…
  • To what extent do you agree?

The beauty of using open-ended questions is that as people reveal more about their thoughts, they give you more information about which to pose more questions…

💡Tip: think about creating a ‘question of the week’. Then try and use that question as often as possible with groups during that time. After you’ve asked the question, then show interest in the participant’s response by asking follow-up questions like, ‘Tell me more’ and ‘What (did you see that) made you say that?’

2. Use the CONDITIONAL

One of the easiest ways to make questions more open-ended and get answers is to use the conditional in your questions. Use words like think, could, would or might.

They signal that there are many ways to answer the question and typically the answers themselves stimulate more questions. 

There is a huge difference between asking someone ‘What is it?’ and ‘What do you think it might be?’

3. Add a STRUCTURE to your questions

Once you start to feel more confident using open-ended questions (and you will, but give yourself TIME to practice phrasing questions in this way so that it becomes a regular part of your practice) you can then add a structure to your questioning to help you think about when to ask what questions.

Sometimes you won’t get an answer to your questions because you’re asking too much or and if it’s too much, too soon. People need a chance to get warmed up, to get to know their environment, the group they are with and YOU before they feel comfortable answering.

So asking that big blue sky question right off the bat is only going to get you crickets…or tumbleweed silence…You need a structure. You also don’t want your carefully crafted open-ended questions to tumble out in any old order. You want the discussion to be a rounded whole rather than a loose muddle of open-ended questions.

I like to use thinking routines to give me a flexible structure (more on that below) but as an alternative, I follow this basic structure based on the ‘Understanding Map – ‘Peeling the Fruit’ thinking routine . I ALWAYS start with the ‘skin’ observation & describing questions as they are easy access and create a level playing-field. Understanding Map

  • Observation & Description ‘What do you see?’ ‘What do you notice?’ ‘How would you describe this to someone over the phone?’
  • Interpretation: 
    • Build Explanations ‘What do you think is (really) going on here?’ ‘What do you think is happening?’ ‘What might the story be?’ What might be happening in this work of art? What might the artist want to say?
    • Consider Different Viewpoints ‘What’s another angle on this?’ ‘Does anyone else think differently?’
    • Make Connections/Comparisons ‘How does this compare with the last one we saw?’
  • Reason with Evidence (throughout the discussion) ‘What (do you see that) makes you say that?’
  • Wonder & Puzzle: (NB: can be asked at any point in the discussion) ‘What still puzzles you?’ ‘What are you wondering about?’ ‘Are there any parts I help you to understand better?’ (Can be asked at any point in the discussion) ‘What if I was to tell you….?’ (to add information and move the discussion along)
  • Summary:
    • Capture the heart ‘What’s the big idea at the heart of this?’ ‘If you were to write a title/one word/headline right now that captures the most important aspect of this artwork or object, what would it be?’
    • Form conclusions  ‘If you were to talk about this artwork/object tonight with your family, what would you say it was about?’ “I used to think….Now I think…’ ‘How has your opinion changed throughout today’s discussion?’ ‘How does it differ from what you would have said earlier?’ 

💡Tip: Choose an artwork or object. Create a list of open-ended questions for that object/stop based on the categories above. Start at the outside of the ‘fruit’ (observation/description), before you move on to the ‘substance’ and work in towards the ‘centre/core’ (summary)!

4. Don’t forget to FOLLOW UP

When you receive an answer to a question, don’t forget to respond and follow up. Say something like, ‘That’s interesting, what else?’, ‘What (did you see that) made you say that?’ or ‘Could you give me an example of where you see or why you felt that?’ If you don’t understand the response, ask a question for more information to clarify.

Make sure that you take the time, not just to hear, but to really understand and value what the person has said.

5. The Shortcut – use THINKING ROUTINES

Thinking routines consist of short, easy to learn and teach questions or steps that get used in a regular fashion. No training as such is required before starting working with these routines.The questions are carefully worded to allow for multiple interpretations and to open up discussions. The more you use the routines, the more they become second-nature. The more they become second-nature, the easier it is for you to word your questions in the same way. Regular use of thinking routines will help you to phrase brilliant questions. However,  you do have to use the routines regularly so that you become used to them.

The routines also provide a loose, flexible structure around which to base the discussion of an artwork or object. Their flexible structure organises thoughts and serves as the backbone for the discussion and helps facilitators and participants to know what to expect just as we described in point 3. above. To learn how to use thinking routines and phrase brilliant questions, see here.

You can always foster participation and interaction by asking questions. Encourage your participants to be active rather than passive. You will go to unexpected places and sometimes go off on tangents by asking these sorts of questions – but that’s OK, because in any case we shouldn’t be doing everything according to a script. Use your questions as catalysts, encouraging your participants to discover, ponder and reflect. You’ll find that both you and your participants will have a more enjoyable, memorable and unique experience.

Next week we’ll focus on 9 common mistakes to avoid make when asking questions!

Masterclass: How to Ask Brilliant Questions that Get Results

If you’d like to be taken step-by-step through the process of improving your questioning technique with tools and exercises to help you consistently create, sort & evaluate your own brilliant questions (that will delight and engage your audience), take my special 90 minute recorded masterclass.
You will:
✔️Learn about the different types of questions and when to use them
✔️Learn simple yet powerful ways to generate, formulate, sort and evaluate questions in response to prompts, artworks and images
✔️Learn to analyse, track & reflect on your own questions, turn closed into open questions (and vice versa)
✔️Finally you will learn new thinking routines, techniques and activities that you can use regularly to perfect your questioning technique
When you purchase this class, you will receive a link to the recording and all the resources (class workbook, slides and PDFs) that go with the class. The class is packed full of exercises for you to do and practical examples. And everything is delivered to your Inbox in a matter of minutes, ready for you to start learning at a time and place that suits you. Click the button below to purchase. 
FIND OUT MORE