There is no doubt that throwing out questions to your audience can be a terrific way of starting a business presentation. It brings immediate interaction, enables you to gauge the feelings of your audience and you can be seen to be personalising your message to them from the outset. Let me pause for a moment, however, to go back and put some emphasis on the ‘can be a terrific way…’. Because this technique can also be an absolute minefield.
Among the stories I relate to the business people I coach in Presentation Skills are:
- The Californian magician who strolled on stage with a straitjacket over his arm, saying: “there is one magician we all know, we all remember, we all admire. His name is Harry…..” and he cups his hand to his ear, awaiting a response from the audience. “Potter”, shouts a small boy at the front. Not a good way to get into your Harry Houdini tribute act, which has now been stalled by having to explain to a disgruntled audience member that ‘yes, he’s a great magician called Harry but tonight we’re going to focus on another one who….”.
- The business presenter who bounded into the room asking: “Who here likes skiing?” - to a very muted response. I think he was unlucky, because I always reckon I am the only person I know who doesn’t ski, but his first ten slides – on a skiing theme – fell a bit flat. He was nowhere near as unlucky, however, as my third and final example.
- The director of a marketing services company who started by saying: “Please shout out some names of brands you love”. Back came names such as ‘Apple, Sony and Virgin’. “Thank you for that; now please call out some brands you hate”. “Yours”, said a man at the back very pointedly. At first the speaker assumed he was joking, but it transpired he had had a very bad experience with her company, which he proceeded to tell us about. What was meant to get the presenter off to a big, engaging start had the absolute opposite effect – one from which she could never hope to recover.
As I said, throwing out questions can take you into a very dangerous minefield! So before embarking on this route – which can be very effective – be very sure that you can handle the answers that may come back and that they will be helpful in getting you off to a good start. Ideally the question should be one that can be answered in one of two ways, each of which you are prepared for and can launch you into the point you want to make. If, for instance I were talking about Presentation Skills, I might pose the question ‘who here gets nervous prior to a presentation’? I could reasonably expect a majority to say yes and I could follow with my tips, starting with a reassurance that these feelings are perfectly normal. If, however, only a few admitted to nerves, I could respond with: “well you are the lucky ones, because most people get nervous and one day the nerves will kick in, even with you, and this is how to handle the situation…”.
The safest option, of course, is to ask for a show of hands, which is easier to control and generally more comfortable for the audience.
In case you think the examples above are unusual or even extreme, let me conclude on one that happened in one of my coaching sessions earlier this year. The presenter wanted to both engage her audience and pave the way to making the point that her products were achieving much higher prices at auction than might be expected. So she asked the audience to guess the price. The most vocal audience member suggested £5,000. The answer was actually £3,800. So not only had her opening failed in terms of setting her up for her big point; it had actually undermined her! Opening and closing are the most important elements of any presentation – so it’s crucial that you remain in control at those moments.