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Tips & Tools: 7 Tips to Get Over a ‘Tumbleweed Moment’

Tips to Avoid a Tumbleweed Moment
Have you asked a question to the participants on your tour and no one responds? You look around and all you can see are blank faces. You wait a little longer and still nothing happens. Just the sound of tumbleweed rustling by….
Yes, that’s the ‘tumbleweed moment’; a period of ‘dead air or stony, unresponsive silence‘. Silence is scary because you don’t know what people are thinking. It could mean anything.
BUT the good news is that it happens to us all and it’s relatively easy to fix.
Here are my 7 tips to get over a tumbleweed moment.

1. Don’t panic.

First take a deep breath. The more often you work in an interactive way, the more likely this is to happen to you sooner or later. So you need to be prepared. Stay calm. Follow the steps below and you won’t be faced with the terrifying sound of silence.

2. Be patient and comfortable with the silence

  • Ask the question and then wait. Understand the importance of pause time. Don’t jump in too quickly!
  • Allow time for the group to think and look. I so often hear the guide or educator go in with a follow-up question, before the group have even had a chance to properly look at the object or think about the answer. Give everyone the chance to respond to your question.  If necessary, count to 5 in your head before even thinking about saying anything. Think of it as thinking time!

3. Set (or reset) Expectations

Ideally, you would set your expectations at the start of the tour (the structure of the tour, your role and what you would like your group to do). However, if you forget you can always state this at any point during the tour and especially after you’ve asked a question and got crickets in response.
Let the group know if your tour is to be an interactive discussion-based experience. Explain that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers’ and your goal for the tour (e.g. to learn and explore together). By explicitly creating a trusting and open atmosphere, everyone will feel happier to contribute.

4. Read the group for signs

Discretely look for body language and verbal clues to tell you how your group received your last question. Do they look bored or fidgety? Maybe you spent too long at that stop and they were keen to move on rather than answer your question. Maybe you got blank stares from some members but a few encouraging smiles from others. Perhaps you could gently direct your re-phrased question in their direction.

5. Request answers in a different format

Maybe it’s at the beginning of the tour and everyone is a bit unsure of each other and what to expect. Maybe the group aren’t ready for that type of question just yet. Perhaps they need warming-up a little. Also, have a think about whether the group feel intimidated by you or their surroundings or don’t want to feel stupid in front of other group members. 
So, instead of asking for responses to be shared with the whole group:
  • Ask for a show of hands, then do a follow up question directed to someone who raised their hand.
  • Do a think-pair-share – ask people to discuss possible responses with their neighbour. This breaks the ice and allows them to share what they thought collectively.
  • Some individuals struggle to find answers when put on the spot so ask everyone (including yourself) to write down a quick response . Then ask if anyone would like to share what they wrote. (If no-one does, you can share what you wrote down).
  • If you haven’t had a response to your question, you could suggest a possible answer yourself and then ask for agreement or disagreement within the group.

6. Re-phrase your question

To get answers, you may need to put more effort into your question. Follow my advice on How to Ask Brilliant Questions that Get ResponsesIf you still get zero responses, you will need to re-phrase your question (see below).Think about re-wording or re-phrasing your question differently.

Maybe you included too much other information and your actual question got buried. So, when you re-phrase shorten the message and speak less. Or maybe your question was too vague and the group are not sure how to answer. For more help with common mistakes when asking questions, read this.

7. And finally, never, ever ask ‘any questions?’

This is usually a guaranteed ‘tumbleweed moment’.

Instead, ask a specific question, wait for the hands to go up and then ask that person a follow-up question.

I’d love to know what problems you’ve faced when you’ve asked questions in the past. What happened? How did you react? Tell me all!

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