The ability to ask powerful, relevant and incisive questions is one of the most useful skills you can have. You can instantly engage people, provoke curiosity, find out what people already know and make your programmes more interactive.
But what makes a ‘good’ question? Good questions are those that invite discussion and encourage exploration. Poor questions can cut a discussion short and put pressure on participants to answer.
Taking the time to improve, plan and work on your questions will prompt more responses, deeper thoughts and will engage your participants more in the theme or subject of your discussion.
So, how can you improve your questioning technique? Here are 11 quick ways to get started.
1. Take time to work on your questions
Take some time first to think about the types of questions you ask (get hold of a recording of yourself if you can!). Write them down. Think about how many questions you ask in a session? Which ones get the best responses? Then take your favourite questions and play around with them. Re-word them. Simplify as much as possible. You see we need to give questioning time – we need to consciously take the time to learn how to phrase good questions. Another good tip is to carry a notebook and write down questions as they come to you. You can also use your notebook to make a note of questions that have worked well for you.
2. Plan your questions in advance
Before each tour or programme that you lead, plan & write your main questions in advance. This will help you to word your questions to get the best results AND to use a variety of different question stems to get more people involved. To kick off the process, do a ‘question-storm’ to brainstorm a list of questions about a theme or artwork. Just questions, no answers yet! You can then cherry pick the best questions to use. Think about the purpose of the questions you have chose, include a variety of difficulty levels and phrase the question using vocabulary familiar to the group you’ll be working with. You can then go through each question and anticipate possible participant responses too.
3. BUT…Be an agile questioner too!
BUT don’t just stick to your list of planned questions. During the session, add questions that occur to you, modify the list you have and think on your feet and improvise (this will come with practise). Be ready to rephrase any pre-planned & improvised questions where necessary (e.g if you don’t get a response).
4. Use closed questions with caution
As mentioned before, closed questions are useful for finding out information, checking in with your participants and offering focus. However, too many closed questions can feel like an interrogation or worse, can stop a discussion dead in its tracks. Beware of closed recall questions that ask for regurgitation of specific information. Before you know it, your programme or tour has become a ‘who knows the answer’ session, only certain participants are answering and the discussion will start to shut down.
5. Ask open questions
Open questions elicit new ideas, opinions and grow possibilities. They 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 often begin with words such as: ‘what’, ‘why’, ‘how’, ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘tell me’ etc.
6. Have an open questioning mindset
Having an opening questioning mindset is where you ask someone what they think and why they think it. This is different to a closed questioning mindset which asks participants to say what they think you want them to say, then take little interest in their reasons too. It is about cultivating the right questioning attitude in order to use the right questions as effectively as possible. And attitude matters.
7. Speak the same language
In phrasing your questions you should avoid jargon and an academic tone. Relate your questions to the group you are with. Use words and phrases that they will understand. If people don’t understand, you will need to rephrase.
8. Avoid leading questions
Avoid using leading questions (‘Do you like our fantastic new addition to the collection?’) which subtly prompt participants to answer in a certain way. Children are very susceptible to leading questions. By contrast, a neutral question is expressed in a way that doesn’t suggest its own answer. A neutral question that elicits an honest answer allows participants to decide how they will answer for themselves (so you can learn what the participant thinks instead of learning what the participant thinks you want them to learn).
9. Ask one question at a time
Write short questions that cover one single point. Don’t ask more than one question at a time as it confuses participants (‘Which one should I answer? What are they really asking me?’). This usually happens when you haven’t planned your questions in advance (see 2. above) and you wind up waffling a big long sentence that doesn’t really know where it’s going. The long sentence will likely contain 2 or more questions in it. If you really want to know 2 different things, you need to ask 2 distinctly different questions at separate times
10. Allow wait time
Ask your question and then wait. Give everyone the chance to respond to your question. If necessary, count to 5 in your head before even thinking about saying anything. Be patient and comfortable with the silence. Give participants a chance to think and then respond. Do not be tempted to go in with a follow up question. The average wait time after asking a question is around 2-3 seconds. Try 3-5 seconds for closed questions and longer – up to 15 seconds for open-ended questions.
11. Use thinking routines
Thinking routines consist of short, easy to learn and questions or steps that get used in a regular fashion.The questions in each routine 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. Thinking routines provide a good scaffold for ‘good’ questions. Download my Ultimate Thinking Routine List for a comprehensive resource of 100+ thinking routines to get you started.
THE ART OF QUESTIONING
If you’d like to be taken step-by-step through the process of improving your 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 self-paced class ‘The Art of Questioning‘. This class will equip you with a variety of techniques and skills that you can use to improve your questioning skills and techniques.