When it comes to Communication Skills…’Listening’ is underrated. It’s considered to be passive. Our attention is focussed on what we’re saying.

With Presentations, a lot of value gets missed because if the audience are listening it probably means the Presenter is speaking. When the Presenter balances that by, for example, asking the audience a question, the energy level, the feel and sound of the Presentation changes because it’s everyone’s experience and observations now that are going into the learning process. 

When we open up the communication, it’s as if a new instrument has started to play during a concert. Our sound and tone change with a question…’Did you notice…?’ ‘Have you experienced…?’ Suddenly, it’s about everyone. Even the body language of the audience changes, not always favourably maybe but that’s fine, anything worthwhile requires effort. Questions open up a presentation, allowing everyone to blend their ideas into the learning mix.

Another thing about questions is, that when we ask them, we have to listen to the answers and respond! We exercise our under-used Listening Muscle. By running the question back again you ensure that you got its meaning.

Newcomers to Presentation tend to avoid two-way communication, I did. It’s understandable…we’ve got enough to think about in delivering the message; and there’s a feeling that if we ask for or even allow questions from the audience, we will lose control.

This idea that when we’re in the Presentation role we must be ‘in control’, isn’t helpful. It is one reason why our nerves take over and we just want to get to the end in one piece. As to our concerns about audience response, I suggest we give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they will behave with the same level of commitment as you. What’s the alternative?

It has to be about sharing our knowledge and expertise, in short our credibility which won’t be on display if we keep it to ourselves. This concern about credibility can be addressed at the planning stage by asking yourself some questions you might get and discovering that you can probably answer them with your own experiences which is very reassuring. If you can’t then you’ve found a knowledge gap that you need to fill.

There can be a concern that the audience are dead set on tricking us and they are waiting to catch us out. But be careful because unless you have specific evidence of this, you will waste a lot of energy trying to offset the occurrence of something you don’t even know will happen.

Some years ago, an acknowledged expert in my field at the time, came to Hong Kong to give a 2 day seminar. I was keen and signed up immediately. The huge audience sat expectantly in long rows in a hotel ballroom and we were not disappointed. New learning flowed like water. Towards the end of Day 2 a question bubbled up in my head so when questions were invited I rose to my feet with a mixture of nerves and excitement. What would he think of my question and what would he tell me?

To my horror, the great man strode quickly towards me a stern expression on his face, saying loudly…’Here he is, the person who has been waiting to ask me the impossible question.’

Well, I was mortified to say the least. Even if the speaker had been joking, my intentions were so completely the opposite to the way he had read them that I was crestfallen. Still, anyone who has given a Presentation will recognise what was probably going on in his mind and I took some comfort in knowing that even a world-famous authority can be the victim of Presentation anxiety leading to false assumptions.

So, anticipate and even welcome questions. They offer you the chance to demonstrate your expertise which, by the way, makes it extremely unlikely that you can’t answer them at some level.

If that does happen, pause to collect yourself, check it out by asking more information to narrow down the scope of the question and then answer from that specific perspective. In your planning, think what the worse case scenario might be and prepare for that. A response might come from another case which reflects the principles involved rather that the fine detail.

Why not, in true workshop spirit, open the question up for everyone? You’re still in charge, you can comment on a contribution and then move on. Tough for beginners but the technique of commenting on the contributions of participants is an important one because it’s how we keep everything on track with our message.

Back to Listening. When a member of the audience makes a contribution – a question or the sharing of an experience – ensure that your body language demonstrates that you are fully focussed on listening and welcome contributions. This may also help you to really listen, rather than think about how you’re going to reply!

Add a comment which brings their contributions into the presentation: ‘…thankyou, this is a good example of the ____ process at the advanced level we talked about.’

Acknowledging the added value from participants’ contributions to a workshop or presentation, further enriches the two-way communication.