Feeling horny. Reflections on questions inspired by a Middle East taxi


by Peter Watts

Asking your audience a question can cue them back into your presentation, but if the audience aren’t expecting it, a silent collision can result.

I’ve just had a similar near-death experience here in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, only it wasn’t in front of an audience, it was in the back of a rush-hour cab where my driver was using his horn the way that a regular driver might use their turn-signal:

Beep Beep….. I might be turning right

Beep Beep….. I might be turning left

Beep Beep….. I’m not turning at all, but there’s a side-street coming up, so what the heck

Beep Beep….. There’s a large SUV hurtling straight towards me down this dusty side-street and I’m going to play chicken with it, just so long as the British guy in the back doesn’t attempt to leap from the cab

Beep Beep….. I’ve just put on the central locking, so take note British guy: Fear of imminent and messy death is no justification for trying to avoid the fare by jumping out of a moving vehicle

The guy spoke fluent horn and all the other road-users seemed to understand it. He had a Old Testament ability to keep on miraculously parting the traffic, and once I came up out of the airline brace position, I realized that there was a definite schema to all the tooting; a schema that can be applied to asking your audience a question.

He was using the horn to warn other vehicles that he was about to come zipping around them, straight between them, or in the case of that jeep in the side-street, straight at them!

He didn’t just spring the impending collision, he pre-announced it so they could get out of the way. It was fair warning that he was about to do something nuts!

In presentations, the same skill is useful whenever you are about to spring something nuts on your audience, such as a question.

There’s several reasons presenters put questions to the audience:

  • It shows that you are confident
  • It shows that you want a two-way communication
  • It can build rapport
  • It can win you thinking time
  • It can be used to re-focus people’s attention onto a key point

It’s a valuable tool, but the downside is that many presenters have had the experience of asking an audience question only to be greeted by a puzzled silence.

The silence isn’t caused by the audience being unable to answer your question. It’s caused by the fact that they weren’t expecting a question.

Even the most attentive audience members don’t listen continuously. They tune in and out, and at any given moment, no matter how brilliant a speaker you are, a chunk of those folks are momentarily contemplating other things. When you unexpectedly hit them with a question, the people who had temporarily tuned-out will instinctively glance nervously at the folks to either side of them, and as that ripple of uncertainty spreads, the audience decide that silence is the best option.

From an early morning rush-hour perspective, my cabbie had this completely figured out. He was using the horn to cue other drivers into the fact that he was about to do something unexpected; like drive straight at them! They therefore needed to be paying attention and ready to react.

Your audience don’t expect a question to come straight at them. They too therefore need to be paying attention and ready to react.

Your Beep-Beep will take the form of a simple statement.

Pause for a moment, and then say: “I have a question for you…..”

Now pause again, and look at the audience. You will see people visibly sit forward as they tune into you. Every ear in the house becomes focussed. Ask your question now and you’re much more likely to get an answer.

Simply because everybody heard you.

When you’re about to do something crazy unexpected, like ask a question, use the horn.

Comments

  1. Solstad, Kristoffer says:

    facebook-like-icon.png GLAD YOU SURVIVED!!

  2. Fabulous analogy. I’ve had the instance you describe above where I’ve asked a question and get blank stares. Likely because I’ve lulled them to sleep and then they suddenly have to wake up. Terrific post as usual and very relevant.

    • Thanks for the kind words🙂 and I doubt very much if you’ve sent the audience to sleep! It’s a natural factor of how our minds work that we continuously scan in and out. If it wasn’t for that we’d get run over by traffic at least twice a week.Easy for the presenter to remedy though…. just take a huge horn in with you!

  3. Excellent illustration and reminder. Giving signposts to the audience where you are heading is always a good strategy with speaking, even if you are heading off to another direction planning transitions is an important part of the speech writing. Love the way that you use examples from your own life to illustrate important speaking points. Glad that you survived the journey!

  4. Craig Agneberg says:

    Great analogy, Peter, and so simple. I will build it into my repertoire. Glad you made it through Jeddah OK. Safe travels.

  5. A honk is a honk, same db level, and relative length (when one is driving – since one must somehow keep both hands on the wheel when driving dangerously). I lived in Cambodia many years, and I understand car talk. What is interesting is how it reveals a driver’s attitude towards others. When comparing a question to a honk, it would be interesting to reflect on what a question reveals on presenter attitude towards audience. Wouldn’t it? (ends on low pitch and means I’m right – agree with me) Wouldn’t it? (ends on high pitch and means think about it)…
    http://scientific-presentations.com/2010/11/26/presentation-traps-11-the-q-and-a-trap/

    • Absolutely! That all important voice-tone at the end. I can almost hear the implicit menace coded into that low-pitch “wouldn’t it” as the presenter adopts an adult/child relationship to their audience. Can we add body language into this? The presenter who asks their questions and simultaneously folds their arms across their chests, or sticks hand on hips, compared to the presenter who asks their question with an open-posture palms upward type gesture. I know that body language can be a horribly subjective topic, but if we stretch our car-horn metaphor that little bit further, maybe we’re now adding the fascinating dimension of driver-to-driver gestures?🙂

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