Direct vs Rhetorical Questions in Presentations.

Asking questions during a presentation

One of the fastest ways to lose control of a presentation is by asking the audience direct questions DURING the presentation. However, there IS an elegant and much more effective alternative!

In this article a PRESENTATION is defined as a short (15-20 minutes), unidirectional communication dealing with concepts rather than excessive details and that goes from the presenter to the audience and should NOT involve questions/answers to or from the audience.

The traditional “Meeting with Slides” is a longer (40-120 minutes or even longer), more detail-focussed, omnidirectional, verbally participative Communicative Activity which some people mistakenly call a “presentation” and often include questions/answers from audience members to/or from the presenter and frequently involve a detailed analysis of financial data using templates.

Maria, a highly qualified but relatively inexperienced product manager, was making a presentation to a small group of healthcare professionals who appeared interested and willing to be participative. Since it was her first encounter with this group, she decided to be dynamic, interested in their experiences and generally involve them all in the presentation. After consulting some of her older, more experienced colleagues, she decided to do something that “everyone else does” in her organization, so… About 10 minutes after starting the presentation, she asked a direct question to one of the younger members of the audience. She was met with complete silence. After waiting for a few seconds, she redirected the question to a more senior member of the group who promptly took over the presentation and proceeded to give a master class about how great he was, how much he knew, etc. Poor Maria did not know how to stop him as he was a K.O.L. (Key Opinion Leader) in his speciality and his goodwill was vital for the organization. Finally, after 20 minutes, he ran out of steam and Maria was finally able to get the presentation back on track. However, It was extremely difficult for her to take the group back to the level of interest they had shown before the interruption. The climate of the meeting had changed… and not in a positive manner. Maria decided to give it one more try so, a little later, she asked a general question to the group – expecting an ordered series of comments. The result astonished her: IN ADDITION to some of the audience answering the question she had asked. There were two or three parallel discussions, at the same time, among audience members. Basically, the audience members started doing their own thing and were not focussed on her task. In fact, a couple of people took out their Ipads & smartphones and started using them! Finally, the presentation finished 40 minutes later than planned! After the meeting Maria was unhappy, unmotivated, and felt that she had lost the respect of the audience and she did not know why.

Have you ever had a similar experience to Maria?

Why people use direct questions in presentations:
Many people mistakenly believe that using direct questions in a presentation is a way to make it more:
Wrong, if we refer back to the definition of a presentation give at the beginning of this article we see that it is an “unidirectional communication” NOT a bidirectional or multidirectional activity. Many presenters apparently believe in “Underestimating the intelligence of the audience while overestimating their knowledge” (C.P.Snow) and tend to give the audience the equivalence of prepared baby food and spoonfeed them the data = lots of information that has been analysed previously for them so there is no need for the audience to think – it has been done for them!. All the audience members have to do is “open their minds” and everything will go into their brain. We believe that real participation does not come from verbal interaction during the presentation but from the audience being forced to think and USE THEIR BRAINS without verbally contributing to the presentation – THIS is real participation!

Some people have told me that they believe that asking questions also makes the presentation more:
Once again, refer to the definition given at the beginning of this article. Why should a presentation be “interactive” and in what ways? If you want interactivity, buy a video game or playstation. Obviously, training courses have to be verbally interactive & participative…but NOT a presentation.
It is the topic and how the presenter presents it that stimulates interest – not the fact that there are questions during the presentation: Interest comes when the audience knows that the presentation is going to cover their needs, wants and lacks and that it will, hopefully, provide a real solution for a problem that they share.

The Problems with direct questions in addition to those identified above:
Most presenters and their audience tend to subconsciously enter into a certain rhythm during the presentation: Slide, read, expand on content, next slide, etc. Direct questions interrupt this rhythm and very frequently become dialogues between the presenter and the audience member who made the comment or asked the question. Frequently, these dialogue deal with a specific problem of the audience member that may, or may not, be of interest to the rest of the group. When the group are not interest in, or are bored by, the dialogue they disconnect from the activity and it is very difficult for the presenter to reconnect with them. Another problem is that there are times when the audience member chosen may not know the answer or feels uncomfortable being singled out in front of the group. Finally, a participant in the audience may have a hidden agenda and use the question as an excuse to get it out in the open.

In order to avoid the situation described above, we strongly recommend the use of rhetorical questions during presentations:

Definition: A rhetorical question is asked merely for effect with no answer expected or when the presenter asks, AND ANSWERS, his own question.

When a presenter uses rhetorical questions, it has many psychological benefits:

– It shows the audience that he or she has shared experiences with them and understands their situation or problem which creates a psychological bond between audience and presenter.

– It is an effect method of elegantly keeping control of the presentation and, more importantly, the conscious & subconscious minds of the Audience.

– It subtly directs the attention of the audience to specific areas/points.

– It forces the audience to participate mentally by creating a hypothesis creation / resolution situation: Once the audience hear the question, they mentally start trying to answer it by formulating a hypothesis about the answer which is immediately answered by the presenter which give the audience the solution (resolution) = mental participation!

– It creates a psychological change in activity that increases audience interest and attention.

– It exploits the primacy – recency effect to make the audience subconsciously focus on the answer.

“When a situation like XYZ occurs, what can we do?  What we have discovered is ABC.”
 (Shared experience – primacy)           (Rhetorical ?)        (Answer – recency)

It is time for presenters to stop what was done in the past and start using leading-edge psychological techniques to improve their communication skills.

Remember:  you never get a second chance to make a first impression

Two Key NLP presuppositions are:
The meaning of your communication is the result that you achieve, NOT what you want to achieve.

Resistance is a comment about the communicator.

© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates, S.L., October, 2012.

Two interesting & useful links:



About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
This entry was posted in Advanced Communication, General Communication, Neuro Linguistic Programming, The Art & Science of Presenting in Public, Training & Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Direct vs Rhetorical Questions in Presentations.

  1. Pingback: “An elephant in the Room” # 3 : Avoiding Unacceptable Behaviour in Presentations. | ianbrownlee

  2. Pingback: Dealing with questions during a Presentation. | ianbrownlee

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