As a corporate trainer, I learned very early in my career the many benefits of asking thought-provoking questions while delivering a course. Asking questions helps keep participants engaged. A good question can encourage classroom participation. Lastly, a question and answer session allows you, the trainer, to check the understanding of your participants.
There are three types of questions I’d encourage every professional trainer to include in his or her toolkit.
An overhead question is simply thrown out to the group and whoever feels comfortable answering it does. It usually generates random responses.
Example: “What key principles are listed in our company’s mission statement?”
Overhead questions are safe because participants aren’t put on the spot or pressured to compose an answer.
I use overhead questions frequently, but have a tendency to gravitate toward them at the beginning of the course, when I’m still forming a comfortable bond with my learners and establishing their trust. At this point I’m also getting to know the various personalities of my trainees so I don’t want to run the risk of intimidating or embarrassing them by specifically asking a direct question.
Direct questions are asked specifically to an individual or a group.
Examples: “Monica, what was the name of our biggest competitor until they went out of business last year?” and “I’d like to hear from someone at the front table. What year was our company founded?”
A distinct advantage of the direct questioning technique is that it keeps our participants on their toes, so to speak. If participants know there’s a good possibility of being directly asked a question, it’s very likely they’ll stay alert, engaged, and pay attention.
On the other hand, one should always be aware of the down-side of asking a direct question. It can cause fear and intimidation within the classroom environment as it has a tendency to catch people off guard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed the “deer in the headlights” look among learners when I’ve asked a direct question. For those reasons, I suggest asking direct questions sparingly.
I myself suffer from a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder having been asked direct questions by a former high school math teacher. Math was not my favorite subject. From general math to algebra, I struggled. My stomach would knot-up and beads of sweat would form on my brow every time I heard my 11th grade math teacher begin his line of direct questioning with my last name. “Welch, what is the greatest possible error for a measurement of 0.02 inches?” I didn’t know the answer then, and quite frankly I don’t know it now!
As a trainer, I typically ask a direct question when I’m certain a participant has a fair amount of subject-matter expertise, ensuring his/her comfort and confidence in formulating an answer to the question.
The easiest way to conceptualize a relay question is to think about a relay race in a track and field competition. During a relay race, one track runner passes the baton to another track runner. This is essentially the same technique followed when utilizing a relay question. As the instructor, you pass the question from one participant or group to another.
Example: “An interesting question was just asked regarding our company’s commission structure. I have a feeling some of the experienced sales professionals in the room might have some insight on this matter. Sales reps, what information can you share about our commission structure?”
Used in this way, relay questions are great for drawing on the knowledge and expertise of other learners in your course. They are also useful when you, the instructor, don’t have an immediate answer to a question posed by one of your participants.
Let’s face it, as trainers, we’ve all been asked a “curve ball” question that stumped us and left us scrambling for an answer. A subtle way to protect your credibility, and perhaps even formulate an answer, is to utilize a relay question.
Example: “That’s a great question! While I do have some experience with information mapping, I’d like to get some insight from anyone in the audience who has applied this technique in their work environment. Who can speak to this?”
It’s very likely you’ll get a participant willing to share their perspective regarding the topic or situation. Meanwhile, it gives you an opportunity to listen to their response, as well as collect your own thoughts. The dialogue should then be completed by confirming the satisfaction of the answer with the person who originally asked the question.
As a precaution, however, do not rely too often on the relay questioning technique when you’re puzzled for an answer. Participants will become aware you’re using it as a stall tactic.
Jeff has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. He completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in both Speech Communications and Broadcasting from Western Kentucky University. Before pursuing his passion for training, Jeff worked as a television reporter, flight attendant, fitness instructor, and tour guide. Jeff started his career in training at the daily newspaper in Atlanta. Training seemed to be a natural fit for him since he’s always been a bit of a performer. When at home, you’ll catch Jeff watching a cooking show, recreating a dish he’s eaten abroad, or exploring one of the many great restaurants in the Chicago area. During the summer months, he hits the road to follow the talented drum corps of Drum Corp International—something he’s done since high school!