Listen to this post as a podcast:
This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. When you make a purchase through these links, Cult of Pedagogy gets a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.
You know that thing where you’re talking to a group of people and you ask them a question and no one answers? And you wait a few more seconds, awkwardly, and nothing happens? It’s one of those funny little problems faced by a lot of teachers, coaches, speakers, ministers, pretty much anyone who speaks in front of groups: The speaker says something, hoping for a response from students or an audience, and what they most often get back are a couple of weak smiles, a grunt or two, and not much more.
It’s mildly uncomfortable for everyone, both the speaker and the audience, but thankfully, the moment passes quickly and it’s no big deal. Still, it’s a fixable problem.
Why It Happens
Getting the silent treatment from a group you’re speaking to happens most of the time for one basic reason: People don’t want to look stupid. Within that broad umbrella of not wanting to look dumb, here are some more specific possible causes of your cricket problem:
- They know you’re not just talking to them.
If you ask a group of people, “How’s everybody doing?” very few of them will answer, because it’s not the same as if you were alone with them. One on one, you ask someone that question and they can give you some detail about how things are going, but in a group, the question is more or less rhetorical. A few extroverted people might mutter “good” or “great,” but no one is going to seriously answer you. The one exception to this is if you’re speaking to tens of thousands of people in some kind of stadium situation. In that case you’re a big fricking deal and the crowd is already going wild because you walked out on stage, so go ahead with your question.
- They think everyone else gets it.
If you say to a group, “Does that make sense?” most people are going to act like it does, even if it doesn’t, because they assume everyone else in the room totally gets it and they don’t want to look like the lone dummy. Instead of telling you it doesn’t make sense, what they’ll do is either (A) turn to someone else to ask a clarifying question, which can look to you like rude chit-chat, or (B) come up to you after your presentation and ask the questions then. If this happens with more than a few people, you now have a small crowd to deal with. On top of that, the rest of the group probably would have benefitted from hearing that question and your response, but instead, you’re only having the conversation with one person.
- You’re asking for too much.
Some questions are too hard to answer on the spot. For example, if you ask, “What is your favorite song?” some people will rack their brains trying to think of a song they like more than any other, THE song that totally defines them as a person. But if you just ask them to think of a song they really like, that’s much easier.
- Someone in the room is intimidating (and it might be you).
When we’re in the presence of someone who intimidates us, it gets a lot harder to speak up publicly, especially if there’s a chance that what we say might be wrong or different from the norm in any way. This is about a thousand times more true if you’re around 13 years old and your whole goal in life is to fit in. So if you have a group that is especially silent, consider who’s in the room: Just one super popular kid or a person who is not particularly nice to her peers may be all it takes to keep the rest of the class from opening their mouths. Or the intimidating person might even be you: If you’ve ever ridiculed students’ questions or their responses to questions you have asked, very few of them will be brave enough to keep sticking their necks out.
- They don’t know what the heck you’re talking about.
It could be that your audience is just really confused. This is where it helps to be a good judge of facial expressions: If people in an audience are confused, many of them will show it right on their faces, but if you’re not generally good at noticing that kind of thing, it could help to have a colleague come in and observe.
More Effective Ways to Increase Audience Participation
Here are some better ways to get your students—or your audience if you’re speaking outside of a classroom—to participate more.
1. Explain what kind of response you want.
Sometimes audiences freeze up when you ask a question because they aren’t sure what kind of response you want, if any. So the more specific you are with your expectations, the better they will be at giving you what you want. For example, you could say, “In a minute, I’m going to ask a question. What I want you to do first is think quietly about your answer. Then I’m going to ask for three volunteers to share their answer with the group.” Specific instructions like that will put your audience more at ease, and they’ll be more likely to give you good responses.
2. Ask for a show of hands.
As long as you’re asking about something people won’t be embarrassed to admit and that at least some people in your audience will probably say “yes” to, this is a way to start a conversation. So rather than say, “How was everyone’s weekend?” you could say, “How many people watched a sporting event this weekend?” From there, you can go to one of the people who raised their hands, ask them what they watched, and you’re off and running.
3. Ask one person a direct question.
We established earlier that everyone in your audience knows you’re not speaking only to them, so when you throw out a question to the room, individual people aren’t likely to move the spotlight to themselves. But if you go to one person directly and ask them a question, they have to respond. So instead of saying, “What did you think of that movie we watched yesterday?”, go to the kid in the third row and say, “Hey Paulie, what did you think about that movie?” Now Paulie could probably just shrug this question off or say, “It was alright,” so if you want to get a better response, try something like, “Tell me something about that movie that made an impression on you.”
4. Have everyone write down a response first.
When you ask a group a question, usually only one or two people will respond. This robs everyone else of the opportunity to answer. If this happens over and over again in the same group, many participants won’t even think about their own response, because they’ll know one of the more talkative people is going to answer anyway. One way to solve this problem is to have everyone write down a repsonse to the question first, then call on a few people to share what they wrote. This way, even if the room only hears a few responses, everyone actually reflected on and answered the question. And when you give everyone time to process in this way, you’re likely to get more and different volunteers than if you just ask the room cold; that’s because some students need more processing time before they feel confident enough to share their thoughts. In their book, Total Participation Techniques (see the end of this post), Persida and William Himmele tackle this problem with dozens of strategies that get every student in the room participating.
5. Do a think-pair-share.
Instead of having everyone write an answer, you could instead just have them turn to a partner and respond to them. This can be useful for meaty, content-heavy questions, where participants are processing something they’ve learned, or just your basic conversational ones. Try it: The next time you’re about to say “How’s everyone doing?” to a large group, instead, tell them to turn to a partner and answer the same question. If someone in the room is having a crap day, this may be the first opportunity they’ve had to actually share that with someone and maybe feel a little bit better as a result.
6. Do a better check for understanding.
If you regularly ask “Is that clear?” or “Does everyone understand?” you probably already know that this doesn’t always tell you who needs more help. Instead, give participants tools to let you know when they are confused: You could ask everyone to give you a thumbs-up or thumbs-down signal to indicate whether they’re getting what you’re saying or hold up colored response cards that can serve as answers to a multiple-choice question. Finally, as we mentioned in a previous post called Let’s Give Our Teaching Language a Makeover, simply switching from “Are there any questions?” to “What questions do you have?” tends to get many more people to actually ask questions.
Bottom line: If you feel like you’re doing all the talking up there, and you want to get more from the people listening to you, you might just need to make a few small changes to your delivery to turn a one-way lecture to a much better conversation.
Persida and William Himmele have established themselves as experts in getting all students to participate in class. Their book, Total Participation Techniques, offers 51 alternatives to traditional “stand and deliver” teaching, many of which will be useful to any speaker in any setting.