The Blog

Asking the Right Questions - Gaining Deeper Understanding - Trees

Asking the right questions

We all want to take the fear out of presentations.

Asking the right questions before you write a single word is a big step towards doing that.

Perhaps you’re pitching for business.

Addressing senior management.

Asking for a promotion.

Or proposing a change to working practices.

So why must we consider what questions to ask?

Read on.

Take the fear out of presentations

Take the Fear Out of Presentations - Asking the Right Questions - Dubai

I learned this principle 30 years ago when I launched into my latest bookshop purchase.

It forms one of Dr Steven Covey’s ‘habits’ in his groundbreaking book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

“Seek first to understand – then to be understood”.

Because only by asking the right questions will you be able to work out your audience, and what interests them.

As a consequence, it’s the first step to take the fear out of presentations.

This week I’m speaking about communication skills at three top golf clubs in the Gulf.

They’re situated in Qatar, Oman and Dubai.

My first message will be to make each conversation focused on the customer rather than ourselves.

When you work in the service industry, that may seem obvious.

But bad customer service makes it about the restaurant rather than the diner.

I remember asking for a coke float in an Australian cafe on hot summer’s day.

The waitress replied abruptly:

“We don’t serve them.”

So I persisted with my questions.

“Do you serve coke?’”

“Yes we do.”

“Do you serve vanilla ice cream?”

“Yes we do.”

“Well would you bring me a coke with a vanilla ice cream on the side please?”

“Yes but I’ll have to charge you for both.”

“That will be just great thanks.”

While that’s a great technique for getting the high-calorie drink you desire, it has huge implications for business.

What’s the big question?

Take the Fear Out of Presentations - What's the Big Question - Trees

My number one question I ask in preparation for a presentation is this:

“What does the audience want or need from what I’m saying?”

As soon as we answer that, we have the key messages for the presentation.

And we continue to take the fear out of presentations.

Next, I want to know who’s in the audience.

How many are there?

Their job titles.

The rank they have in the organisation.

How long they’ve worked there.

What they feel about the company.

Frustrations they may have.

What their aspirations are.

Where my part comes in the conference.

So when I see my client on landing in Doha, I’ll ask him these questions over dinner.

My presentation is written based on what I know already.

Seek first to understand

Take the Fear Out of Presentations - Seek First to Understand - FAQ

I just want to dig deeper to ensure I get the tone of the content just right.

‘Seek first to understand – then to be understood’

If we can do that when asking colleagues or senior management to follow our suggestions, we’ll enjoy more success. 

I always ask myself these questions:

“What’s in it for me?”

“If I were sitting listening to this presentation – would I be clear on what’s in it for me?”

So if you’re asking colleagues to adopt a new way of working, demonstrate how it will save them time.

If pitching for business, work out the benefit to the client if you’re running the contract.

If you’re asking for promotion, make sure your boss is clear on the benefit to him or her if you fill that post.

Six honest serving men

Take the Fear Out of Presentations - Six Honest Serving Men - Why

If you’re wondering about asking the right questions, remember the start of this Rudyard Kipling poem:

“I keep six honest working men
They taught me all I knew
Their names are what and why and when
And how and where and who”

I’ve asked these questions all my life as a journalist.

I ask them also on the golf course.

At a wedding.

In restaurants and coffee shops.

And especially when preparing speeches or media interviews.

They too help take the fear out of presentations.

Gaining deeper understanding

Take the Fear Out of Presentations - Gaining Deeper Understanding - Trees

Asking questions with your family, friends and colleagues leads to deeper understanding.

On the golf course, I learn about my playing partner’s careers and family.

In coffee shops and restaurants, I learn how business is going.

And at Edinburgh airport as I depart this week, a couple of questions derive benefits.

“Is the flight busy this morning?”

“No, it’s quieter this morning.”

“Well could you possibly put me next to an empty seat?”

“Yes I could give you three together – and I’ll block the other two.”

“Fantastic, thanks! Could you do that with a window seat?”

“Let’s see. Yes – I’ll put you in at 35A – boarding first.”


Asking questions directs you where you want to go while giving the other person choice and power.

Most people want to be helpful and dislike dealing with demands.

If we put their thoughts first, we are more likely to get what we want.


Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Photos by / CC BYaronbaker2 / CC BY / BAMCorp / CC BY-SA / on

26th April 2019 Featured in: Blog, Communication skills training blogs By:

view all posts

Build Your Confidence

Some media trainers knock you down…and leave you down. Our media coaches show you how to deal with each knock…and still win through. So you have the presentation skills to perform – with confidence.

request a quote