Don't turn your audience into goldfish. Ask better questions!

Don't turn your audience into goldfish. Ask better questions!
Short memory. Short attention span.

We'll get back to meeting prep and planning next month; there's another topic I'd like to cover in the interim.

To quote the undauntable Ted Lasso, "What animal has the shortest memory? A goldfish!”.  Let's add in another characteristic of goldfish - they have short attention spans, just like people watching unengaging Zoom meetings.

I was recently reminded of this as I sat through an hour long pitch from a vendor focused entirely on pouring facts and data points down my throat without checking to see if I was still breathing.  

Audience engagement can be difficult in person but it is many times harder via video teleconference.  As sales professionals, it is important for us to balance delivering our message with validating that our audience is leaning in and not checking their email, shopping online, or surfing the web.  In many circumstances we should also be using our time to learn more about them - the state of their business, their current technology landscape, and digging deeper into the reason that they wanted to meet with us in the first place.  

There is one question we’ve all asked that is the absolute death knell for audience engagement.  

Any questions?

Admit it, you’ve been there…you’re burning through slides so you can get to the “good stuff”, maybe a cool demo you’ve prepared or finalizing plans for a proof of concept.  

Or you’re nervous because you don’t know the topic nearly as well as you’re trying to portray. are on autopilot because you've delivered this preso like 100 times.  So you hit the major talking points on a slide, then ask the worst question in the history of questions and try to move on.

Any questions?

Based on extensive research, here are the probable outcomes to that question:

  • 88% chance of dead air so you immediately drive forward.  
  • 10% chance someone says a variation of “no”.
  • 2% chance someone actually asks a question.  

I just made those numbers up, but don't they feel fairly close to the outcomes you experience with that question? From the audience's perspective, many presentations go like this:

  • 60 seconds quickly covering the agenda
  • "Any questions?"
  • 5 more minutes of content
  • "Any questions?"
  • 8 minute monologue
  • "Any questions?"

And on, and on, and on.

Frankly, you’ve lost your audience long before the 3rd iteration of "any questions" unless they are exceptionally motivated.  Maybe it’s not goldfish level (10 seconds, according to Ted), but you’re likely to lose your audience within a few minutes if you haven’t managed to garner their interest and don’t make an effort to talk to them rather than at them.  

So how do we prevent our customers from turning into goldfish during our presentations?

The solution is deceptively simple: ask questions of the audience designed to engage with them and inspire conversation.  Even if only a few members of the audience are responding, a conversation is far more likely to keep the rest of the audience focused than one person droning on.  That's why awards shows and sporting events have two commentators rather than one.

Structuring our questions

So if “Any questions?” is bad, what type of questions should we be asking our customers?  

We should be asking broad, open-ended questions designed to trigger action.  Open-ended as in they aren't answered with a simple yes or a no.  The answer should be multiple sentences if possible.  Broad implies that they should garner a person's opinion, thoughts or adding new information into the conversation.

These questions can be hard to come up with in real time.  What works best is as you are building content for your next presentation, try to plan several open-ended questions every 2-3 minutes.  Here are some questions I ask myself when designing questions for a presentation:

  • Why is this meaningful to the audience?  
  • How could it impacts their team?  
  • How can I confirm that they are aligned with what's proposed?
  • What is their opinion on this topic?
  • Where do I need to learn more from them?

Once I have them, they are dropped into my speaker notes, ready to be deployed when it makes sense.  Having multiple prepared questions allows me to make a game time decision on which to ask based on my read of the audience and what I've already learned.  Or it can enable me to ask multiple questions to keep a good conversation going.  

You may also consider adding key stakeholders at the end of your questions should you not be getting active responses from your audience.  This can be especially helpful if you preface them with a compliment such as "Hey Sree, I believe you're the expert here.  What do you think of...".

Some examples for you

Think about it, rather than walking through the meeting agenda then asked, "Any question?" or its first cousin, "Does that work?", what if you asked the key stakeholder "What else do we need to make time for on this call?".    

Instead of walking through the various features of an API and then asking “Any questions?”, prepare a question similar to, “Which of these features do you think would be most impactful to your project?”.  

After covering the updates from your product team on the list of open bugs this customer has encountered, skip "Any questions?" and ask “ This prioritization makes sense to me.  Which of these would you move around?”.  

Insightful questions aren't just for slide decks.  Don't pause midway through a  demo to ask "Any questions?".  How much more powerful would it be to ask, "How does what I just showed you align with your target future state?" or "What challenges would you see if your company adopted a similar approach?" or even "What kind of impact would it have on your customer journey if you implemented this approach today?".

Hopefully you are starting to see where this is going.  Here's a few more sales engineering specific scenarios:

  • Presenting your product’s road map?  “This is a heavily requested feature. What do you envision your team could accomplish with it?”  
  • Walking through a project plan?  “What risks do you see with ordering the milestones in this sequence?” or "How do these dates line up with the commitments your team has made to the leadership team?".  
  • Delivering a root cause analysis for a recent outage?  “Now that you’ve seen the changes we’re taking to prevent this issue from recurring, what are your concerns?”.  

Open ended questions get easier with practice.  So what is stopping you from working them into that preso you have later this week?

The absolute best part of prepping insightful questions for your presentation is that leftovers can be banked and be saved to be pulled back out later, such as at the restaurant with your customer that evening or during a 1on1 with a key stakeholder.  They are not wasted!

Asking insightful questions can seem like a little thing at first, but trust me - sprinkling them in can make a presentation better for your audience, increase how much they retain, and significantly increase your presentation or demo's impact on your sales process.

Any questions?

Just kidding.