Captivate Your Audience With Provocative Questions

We succeed in various facets of life when we ask powerful questions, worded so skillfully that they generate the desired results. Examples: “So you are ready to place your order now?” “Will you marry me?” “Can I consider what you just said a firm job offer?” Likewise, the most effective speakers pose provocative questions that captivate their audiences and maintain attention.

Initially, let’s give special attention to the adjective provocative. That category would not include the trite questions we hear speakers say all too often, such as “Did you notice how the traffic was much worse this morning?” Sure, that gets listeners a bit stimulated, but not related to your topic.

A truly provocative question will challenge traditions, customs, habits, and ideologies. The most probing questions might generate embarrassment, anger, and resentment. On the more positive side, creative questions will foster empathy, fresh understanding of a problem, and commitment to action.

Consider the pulsating question injected into American politics for the first time-in those exact words-in 1980, when candidate Ronald Reagan asked: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That simply stated question prompted voters to compare their well-being in 1976 to their 1980 status, and come up with a negative response. Reagan defeated Carter by a huge margin.

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One more political illustration: Senator Howard Baker served on the committee investigating President Richard Nixon’s Watergate break in. Baker asked, “What did the President know, and when did he know it?” You will recognize that question as one that surfaces often in today’s criminal investigations.

Another famous example: In his pivotal “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that opponents of the civil rights movement were wondering, “When will you be satisfied?” King used that question as the springboard for listing what Negroes wanted in order to say they were satisfied: an end to police brutality, comfortable lodging in nice hotels and motels, permission to live in homes outside the ghetto, and an unlimited right to vote.

Now let’s consider instances when a provocative question will stir the audience in business and professional settings. When Procter and Gamble acquired Gillette, a Gillette human resources official held separate meetings with fifty-five departments. With each presentation, he voiced the question he knew every employee was pondering silently: “How will the acquisition impact my job security and benefits?” During his presentation, he gave detailed answers and then responded to questions and comments during discussion. As a result, the acquisition went smoothly, with morale remaining high.

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Or suppose you are advocating a new health care provider for your company. Speaking to decision makers, you can introduce the proposed plan indirectly by asking, “What are the top benefits you want your health insurance plan to include?” Obviously, you would move quickly to demonstrate that the new provider will guarantee these preferred advantages.

So in planning your next speech, be sure to design thought-provoking questions that will capture and keep attention, jar listeners into fresh thoughts and opinions, and lead them to action they wouldn’t have taken otherwise. Asking powerful questions will increase audience interest, interaction, and constructive action.

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by Bill Lampton, Ph.D.