Questionable Questions – Crap I Think of While Mowing the Lawn #25

(other than This Lawn Looks Like Crap)


Interesting, if not always deep, thoughts often pop into my head while I’m doing battle with my lawn. And yes, I do battle with a non-gas, non-electric, old-fashioned push mower. An actual reel mower. And my mind tends to think of some semi-interesting crap while I push along.

Welcome to Volume 25 of Crap I Think of While Mowing the Lawn (or raking the leaves).



When speaking to a crowd…which beats speaking to oneself…it is often a good strategy to engage your audience by asking them a question. A simple question can help you connect with your audience, bringing them into your presentation. Indeed, as a speaker, you are after that dynamic connection—which you should then build upon to make your talk more resonant and memorable.

Last week, I received a couple reminders, however, that not all questions are created equal. The right questions will bridge that initial gap between speaker and audience; the wrong ones may add a little distance.

This past Wednesday, at a meeting of my speakers bureau (South Jersey’s Emerging Speakers Bureau), one of the presenters tested her presentation, and solicited our feedback. At an early point in her talk, she asked us, “Do any of you know Joshua Schmenge?” Okay, that wasn’t the name she referenced, but I didn’t, and don’t, remember what name she did call out.  It might as well have been Schmenge, and none of us in the room had heard of him.

When the question was posed, and I didn’t recognize the name Joshua Schmenge, it distanced me a little from the presentation, because I didn’t know who he was. Either: a) I felt a little, well, stupid or unaware, because maybe I should have known him or b) I lost a little confidence in the speaker because she should have known her audience a little bit better.

Now, my point is not that–as a speaker–you need to know everything about your audience, including what they know. That’s impossible. You should, however, play percentages, and ask questions that are likely to bring you and your audience closer together. I did not go into all of this analysis during the feedback session, but I did touch upon this.

So, why was I the instant-expert on this aspect of forging connections? It was in the forefront of my mind because I had made a similar miscalculation during my own presentation the previous morning.

Last Tuesday morning, I was speaking to a group of managers at Virtua Hospital (Voorhees) on the mindset of creating what I call EPIC presentations. I contrasted EPIC successes with epic failures, and referenced onc such recent public failure. An executive from Chevrolet, now known simply as “Chevy Guy”, nervously botched his presentation of a new truck to the World Series MVP, San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner. Here is the video in question.

Now, putting aside the ethics of using someone’s public embarrassment for my own purposes, here was the problem. In my world, I often believe that everyone watches the World Series (including the postgame ceremonies), and besides, this video had already gone “viral.” I asked the 40 or so managers in the room something like, “How many of you saw the embarrassing award presentation made by a Chevy executive at the conclusion of the World Series?”

All but three of the 40 or so in the room gave me blank stares. The clumsy way that I set this up not only served to put distance between us, but took away some of my own momentum. I believe that I recovered from this momentum loss, but my mistake taught me a valuable lesson.

Just as attorneys advise each other to never throw out a question that you don’t already know the answer to, I would advise myself (and other speakers) to only ask questions that you know will help to draw the audience in.

In retrospect, I would have done much better if I just told the story about “Chevy Guy” (which related to my overall talk). It would have been interesting to all, not alienated anyone, and even (I’m guessing) inspired an extra knowing chuckle or two from those who had seen it before.

Objectively, I think that I recovered from this blip, and was able to deliver a meaningful talk that resonated with a majority of the audience. The panel that I put together did a very good job, and I think that we delivered what we promised to the Virtua staff.

However, my own talk would have been that much better if I stuck to asking the right questions. Not all questions are equated equal, and I chose one that fell flat.

There is good news here, which relates to one of my other points. The great majority of audiences, and audience members, want the speaker to succeed, the schadenfreude of certain moments notwithstanding. Nobody, well almost nobody, expects perfection from a speaker, and they certainly didn’t get it from me. But I was otherwise very prepared, respected my audience’s time and intelligence, delivered something that was meaningful, and showed my own passion for my topic.

That was almost enough for this quasi-perfectionist, yet I knew that I could have made an even more seamless connection if I remembered to ask the right questions…or better yet, just shared a good story.


Mower and Statesman



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