Asking questions of speakers: top tips

Laura Sangha

Presentation ‘season’ has just begun at my University, where group and individual talks are part of the assessment for modules at every undergraduate level. Public speaking is apparently once of the most feared aspects of modern life, yet it is also a skill that students may well need in their future workplace, so it makes sense that all are called upon to regularly research, write and deliver presentations, building experience and confidence.


Many people aren’t fans of public speaking

At Exeter, the marking criteria is focused around preparation, content, structure, creativity and delivery, but students are also assessed on their handling of questions in a Q&A segment after they have presented. And it is this that has inspired this post. Of course, a presenter needs some good questions in order to be able to demonstrate the depth and scope of their knowledge in a Q&A session, but I have found that people can struggle to formulate queries and that they can as a result be a bit hesitant to raise their hand. So I have come up with some suggestions about the sorts of things that it might make sense to ask about, as a teaching resource I can point my students to. Please do add your own below the line.

Invite a speaker to expand on something.

This could be something that was mentioned only briefly, but that you would like to hear more about. It could be related to a concept or phrase that was mentioned, but you would like more explanation.

  • You said that a slow reformation could actually be a strength. On the face of it that idea seems a bit counterintuitive, so could you say a bit more about why, and what you mean by that?

Ask for a summary of the argument.

The presenter should have given  you a sense of what their interpretation or argument was, but if it wasn’t clear, you could ask them to summarise or restate it.

  • If I understood you right, you were saying that X was the most important influence on Y. Is that right?
  • You’ve given us a really good sense of all the different factors that contributed to X, but could you say which you think was the most significant?

Offer a new perspective.

You can draw on your own reading and knowledge to flesh something out; to ask for a response from the presenters; or to challenge something that was said.

  • I thought you made a really strong case for this policy as ‘a ragbag of emotional preferences’. But Bernard argues that the policy was more consistent though, because it was centred on Royal Supremacy. Do you think there might be some truth in that?
  • When you were talking about X it reminded me of what Walsham says about Y. Do you think there are parallels there?
  • You were using wills to suggest declining belief in intercessory prayer, but Eamon Duffy argues that wills shouldn’t be used as indicators of belief because of X, X, and X. Do you think that undermines your argument?

Ask how representative an argument/interpretation is.

The aim here is to find out how widely an argument applies or to whom.

  • You talked about the increasing ‘privatisation’ of religious devotion. Was that across all of society or restricted to a particular sort of people?
  • Were there differences in the way that men and women experienced X?
  • What differences does a person’s age make to X?
  • Do you think that there was regional variation when it came to the impact of this new legislation?

Ask for a clarification.


Early modern teaching & learning

  • I didn’t quite follow when you were talking about the passage of the legislation through Parliament. Could you go over that again please?

Ask whether things changed over time.

Particularly relevant if the speaker’s talk covers a long time period.

Ask about evidence.

It’s always useful to know what evidence there is for a historical interpretation. If your presenter hasn’t mentioned their sources much, you could ask them to talk about these.

  • You were arguing that the response to Marian reform was very positive, and that the interiors of parish churches were quickly transformed. How do we know this?
  • What sources have been used to explore Elizabeth I’s personal religious preferences?

Ask about the vantage point.

This is sort of related to the previous point about sources and could be a follow up question. It’s useful to think about what sort of perspective the sources have given us. An elite view? A view of practice, but not necessarily belief? A prescriptive view, but not necessarily one closely related to practice? If it wasn’t made clear, you could clarify with the speaker which viewpoint they have provided.

  • I really enjoyed hearing about the Holy Household. Do you think that this was just an aspiration, a set of prescriptive guidelines promoted by the clergy? Or do you think that there actually was a spiritualisation of the household in this period?

Ask about the bigger picture.

If the talk was quite narrowly focused, you could ask the speaker to explain how their topic fits into the broad field of study.

  • How do you think your topic relates to the idea of Reformation as ‘a process’?
  • Can you see any parallels with other historical themes that we have come across on this module?
  • If you had more time to research your topic, what sorts of things would you want to focus on and explore?

Finally…don’t worry about questions you can’t answer.


a) Having researched and written your presentation, you are probably better prepared thanshutterstock_170846336-300x287 your audience, and know your way around the topic. It’s unlikely that you will be completely stumped.

b) Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know. No presenter can know everything, so admitting that you didn’t read anything relating to a particular question is not a sign of weakness. This would only be problematic if the question is about a very important theme that you would really be expected to encounter in the course of your research.

c) You might not know the direct answer to a question, but you can steer the discussion towards something you do know.

e.g. ‘I didn’t encounter that theme in my reading, but it is quite similar to/relates to/has parallels with this…’

That’s just a few suggestions  – please do add your own ideas and comments below the line.

10 thoughts on “Asking questions of speakers: top tips

    • That’s very much for your generous response! It struck me that I don’t really discuss questions much with students, but since it is something they are expected to do, some advice was needed.

  1. Very useful, Laura! The last one (‘Ask about the bigger picture’) sounds like a more polite form of the difficult but important evergreen question: So what? I wouldn’t encourage people to ask it that way, but it is an important one to keep in mind when writing one’s own talks and papers.

    A long time ago I made a rule for myself that I find useful: whenever I go to a paper or talk, I make sure to write down at least one question that I could ask the speaker. I often don’t actually ask it, but the exercise of forcing myself to think about what I want to know more about can be illuminating, especially when it is one a subject quite distant from my own.

    • Thanks Brodie! Yes, that’s really helpful advice about not just listening at papers, but thinking around them as well, regardless of whether you actually ask a question. Jotting down questions is an excellent way to practice.

  2. Such great advice, Laura. I’d also add that for student presenters who then have to answer those questions, it doesn’t hurt to stop and think for a few seconds before launching into an answer. It can be helpful to offer a short, 30-second answer, and to then offer a longer 3-minute answer with examples.

    • Thanks Rachel! Yes, that is excellent advice (and this is something I am not very good at!). It is so easy to jump in with the first thing that comes into your head, but why not have a bit of time to reflect to make sure of what you want to say.

  3. Pingback: the many-headed monsters’ resources for teaching | the many-headed monster

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