The other day I attended a forum designed to explain a complex external issue to employees at a major corporation. The intention was admirable: The more employees know about the topic, the more prepared they will be to answer questions about it.

But organizers made a classic mistake: They spent all their energy figuring out what content to present, instead of creating an interactive experience. As a result, a lot of information was shared. But only 10 minutes remained for the Q&A session, which is always the liveliest, most helpful part of such a meeting.

In fact, questions are one of the most effective techniques in communication--much more powerful than presentations. Why? Glad you asked! Here are 11 reasons:

  1. Questions show you care about audience members--and that communication is all about them. Whether you pose a question ("What is your perspective about this issue?") or ask for questions, you're signaling respect.
  2. We crave authenticity. Packaged, controlled communication seems fake to us. But questions make the experience immediate and real.
  3. Questions take time but create energy. (If your session is an hour, allow at least 20 minutes--preferably 30--for Q&A.). Like every interactive experience, a question session raises audience members' heart rates. They go from a passive, resting state to actively participating.
  4. Listening only takes part of our brain power. So we tend to mentally multitask when sitting through a presentation, thinking about our next meeting or wondering what we should order for dinner or fantasizing about a 10-day Caribbean vacation. But when the facilitator asks a question like this one--"How can we overcome this obstacle?"--we switch into full problem-solving mode.
  5. Leaders seem humbler and more approachable when they don't pretend to have all the answers. Since no one (even you) actually has all the answers, questions build trust.
  6. In most organizations, it's surprising and unexpected to create a participative meeting experience. Yes, it's sad that so many meetings consist of nothing more than boring presentations, but this is also an opportunity for you to break the mold.
  7. Questions are a great way to brainstorm and generate ideas. A blank sheet of paper can be daunting, but it's easy for people to address a series of questions like these: "What are three simple ways to improve this process? What if we blew it up--how would we get this done? What if the process were reversed; what we do differently as a result?"
  8. Addressing tough questions helps people deal with change. They're anxious about what will happen, and they're thinking about worst-case scenarios. So when a leader addresses all the elephants in the room--even if he or she doesn't yet know the answers--it helps release tension. People feel heard.
  9. Presentations tend to be general, as presenters try to share "the big picture" that relates to everyone in the audience. Questions are wonderfully specific, which makes them more relatable. Plus, specific answers are much more useful than abstract concepts.
  10. There is no such thing as a dumb question. Every question is important because it provides a valuable perspective about how people think, what they care about and what they need. That makes even the simplest question worthwhile.
  11. Socrates was right. The Greek philosopher discovered that questions build deeper knowledge than providing information. (His method--ex duco--means to "lead out," as in drawing out knowledge;  the term creates a root for the word "education.")

Any questions? I'd love to hear them.