The ability to ask powerful, relevant and incisive questions is one of the most useful skills you can have.
With a good questioning technique you can instantly engage people, provoke their curiosity, find out what they already know and make your programmes more interactive.
Questioning is not an innate talent for most of us – we have to work hard at developing a good questioning technique.
It’s a skill and, like all skills, we need to actively work on it to improve it.
So, how exactly can you get better at asking questions? Here are some quick ways to improve your technique.
TAKE TIME TO WORK ON YOUR QUESTIONS
Take some time first to think about the types of questions you ask in your sessions. If possible watch or listen to a recording of yourself in action. Write down the questions you ask. If you can’t see yourself in action, write down some of your favourite go-to questions. After your next guided tour or programme, quickly write down some of the questions you asked.
Think about how many questions you ask in a session?
Which ones got the best or most responses?
Which questions fell flat? Why did they fall flat?
Think about possible reasons (the group didn’t understand the question, it wasn’t clear enough, I asked more than one question at a time and so). Read or listen to 10 common mistakes people make when asking questions. Do you make any of these mistakes regularly? What’s your bad habit? Be honest with yourself.
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. Make a note of questions that you have found interesting or inspiring, or have worked well in art discussions or those you want to use in future programmes.
You can also write down questions from things you read, listen to or watch.
Make a conscious effort to listen out for questions and note down ones that strike you. Be a collector of good questions!
Once you have a large set of questions you can start to categorise – I use a variety of categories – ‘introductory, ‘interpretation’, ‘wondering’ ‘concluding’ and ‘reflecting’ and more.
You’ll never be stuck for good questions to ask and you’ll find the act of writing them down helps you to remember them more easily. To make this a daily habit – spend a couple of mins adding a question to your journal every day.
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. You can use thinking routine Creative Questions to help you with this.
Think about the purpose of the questions you have chosen, 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.
BE AN AGILE QUESTIONER
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).
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 a quiz or an interrogation or worse, can stop a discussion dead in its tracks.
Be wary also 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.
Start thinking about when you’re asking closed questions on your programmes. How often do you use them? Would an open question get a better answer? Some people find it easier to formulate closed questions than open ones or vice-versa, so it’s worth spending some time working on formulating both types of questions.
Set a timer for 3-5 minutes.
Brainstorm a list of questions about an artwork or object.
When the time is up, count how many questions you have. Were you surprised by how many questions you generated?
Then note which ones are OPEN and which ones are CLOSED.
Choose one open question and change it into a closed question. Then do the opposite – choose one closed question and change it into an open one.
Then think about What effect it had changing the questions from open→closed and closed→open? Which one was harder to do? Open to closed or closed to open?
Just by opening and closing a question, it can completely transform it. It might change the effect the question has or the information it elicits.
Generally speaking, open-ended questions will open up the scope of your discussion and receive fuller answers, whilst closed questions will give a tighter focus and more direct answers.
Get really good at formulating open and closed questions. Both types of questions have their place in a discussion in a museum and you should be comfortable at formulating both types.
DEVELOP 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.
Improving your questioning technique is also about cultivating the right questioning MINDSET in order to use the right questions as effectively as possible. And mindset is important!
SPEAK THE SAME LANGUAGE
When you phrase your questions you are aiming to be clear and concise. 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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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. Regular use of thinking routines in your art discussions will change the way you think about questions forever.
BECOME A CURIOUS QUESTIONER
And finally. You know we love questions on this podcast! So how about setting yourself an intention to be a curious questioner this year in everything you do?
A curious questioner values questions more than answers, takes time and effort to work on the questions they ask during their programmes. They also encourage their participants to ask them more questions. Give it a go and make this the year you work on your questioning technique.
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