How to ask the right questions at conferences

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Asking great questions is an art.

It’s one of the easiest ways to connect with a conference speaker and, if you ask a question they want to answer it can build rapport with them and the rest of the audience, fast. Plus, you get to dig deeper into the topic they’ve discussed and get them to expand on the areas you’re most interested in.

But it can be hard to think of a great question on the spot, especially if your heart is pounding in anticipation of being picked (I get this all the time… sweaty palms, blood thumping in my ears, desperation to be picked mixed with fear of fluffing my words). 

With the AAT Annual Conference coming up, and having been asked, and asked a lot of questions in the past few years, I thought I’d share my tips on how to ask good questions at conferences.

Questions that you’ll love asking, the speaker will love answering and the audience will thank you for choosing:

1. Prep ahead of time

Know which speakers you’d like to talk to and make sure you do some background research on them, and their talk before the event. This will help you think of questions before hand, which you can note down and take with you. Have two or three questions ready if you can.

2. Make notes

Whilst they’re talking, jot down any questions or ideas that come to mind. So often we think of good questions but when the spotlight is on us to ask them, they go out of our heads and we forget what we wanted to say.

3. Give the speaker context

Help your speaker out a little by giving them context to your question and a real life example. Honestly, they’ll thank you because no matter how relaxed and prepared they look up on stage, I bet you they’re silently terrified that someone will ask something they cannot answer.

The best way to do give context is to start with ‘What if…’ and suggest a scenario. For example, if I was doing a talk on how to write email newsletters to engage your audience, you might ask me:

“What if every time I sit down to write my monthly newsletter, I end up writing and rewriting my opening paragraph and it takes so long it doesn’t seem worth it?”

That would help me picture your specific problem and give you an answer that is both useful and illustrative – so other people in the audience can benefit too.

4. Keep it open

Don’t ask questions that can easily be answered with a yes or a no. Asking open questions prompts the speaker to go into detail. One easy way of avoiding a closed yes or no answer is by using one of the five W’s at the start of your question:

Where?

What?

When?

Who?

Why?

5. The golden question

I had the opportunity to ask my favourite author Elizabeth Gilbert a question at the end of a talk recently. I knew a lot about her, and she’d covered all the things I’d hoped she would during her talk, but I still wanted the opportunity to connect with her and go a bit deeper.

So I asked her:

“What are you most excited about right now?”

And her answer was illuminating. It cut through the surface ‘stuff’ and helped me understand her in a much deeper way. And she loved answering the question, because coincidentally it was one she liked to ask people instead of “what do you do?”.

This question will always help you understand someone better, and is a great one to fall back on if you’re stumped for anything else.

Adapt it if it feels too familiar for your situation. E.g:

“What are you most excited about in [insert industry] right now?”

And because there’s some unwritten rules that you might not be aware of, here’s three things you must not do when a Q&A opportunity arises:

1. Not ask a question

The amount of times I see this is astonishing.

Sharing how much you love the speaker’s work or make a statement about how you agree (or disagree) with what they’re saying but not actually asking a question will leave them with nowhere to go, and the audience feeling awkward and hoping they move to someone else quickly.

2. Waffle

It can be hard when to be succinct when asking questions, but try. By all means give context if you have to, but keep it brief and get to the question as quickly as possible.

3. Use it as an opportunity to pitch yourself

Honestly, this could come across as you trying to promote yourself and that you’re not genuinely interested in their answer.

Over To You

Do you have any tips you’d like to add? What are the best questions you’ve been asked, or asked at a professional conference? Let us know in the comments.

Jen Smith coaches entrepreneurs in social media.

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