Updated 2/17/2021. Originally Published 12/29/2014

When you are speaking in front of a group or delivering a learning session, how do you avoid providing the solutions and answers to avoid the audience’s silence?

Unintended Silence

When you are delivering workshop learning content, and ask the audience a question, have  you been  greeted with dead silence? Isn’t the silence deafening?  Do you rush and try to fill in with an answer to cover the blank looks, deadened stares, or the distinct “I wish this session were over” silence.  When this occurs, what do you do?  

  • Should you attempt to cover the roaring silence?
  • Is there an alternate way to handle the silence?
  • Is there a way to prevent the silence?
  • Maybe ask the question(s) in a different method?
  • Was your question requiring only a “yes” or “no” response?
  • Is the question content within the audience’s realm of knowledge?
Response Refrain

One solution is to “refrain from responding to everything”, according to the article “Effective Questioning Techniques, by Ray Rasmussen.

In a separate article entitled  “Practical Discussion Techniques for Instructors“, the author states that the wait time following the instructor’s question can be managed in several methods.  He suggests finding methods of reducing the discomfort for the audience or asking if the audience additional clarification or details.  

Another suggestion is to present the question simultaneously in multiple formats, thus accommodating different adult learning styles.  For example, while verbally asking the question, it could be replicated visually on the screen, whiteboard, or paper.

The white paper by Alabama Pathways, entitled “Principles of Adult Learning”, suggests that lecturing to the audience should be kept to a minimum. In fact, this is critical and the instructor should utilize a variety of training tools and techniques to keep the participant engaged and responsive. 

I have utilized several of these techniques during my corporate training sessions, with my reliable method is to “count internally backward from 100”.  

This allows enough opportunity for someone to articulate thoughts, if desired, while providing me the opportunity to decide which alternate technique I will use to re-engage the audience.

Regenerate Engagement 

One of my favorites, if time allows, is to take a 3-minute exercise to separate into groups with a marker and flip chart paper. 

The goal is simply to write down anything that comes to mind related to the question/topic at hand. 

There are no wrong answers. 

The group that produces the largest number of responses receives a reward or recognition, such as an extra 5-minute break, or something non-tangible yet appreciated.  The exercise focus isto get everyone re-engaged and on-topic.

Ideally, as a learning and development professional, you will develop a toolkit of questioning techniques and learning engagement methods, allowing you to pivot when necessary to address the “moment of unintended silence”.

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