Keys to a Question – How to Sound Intelligent when Asking a Question?

I want to ask a Question!
I want to ask a Question!

How many of you have had the following experience: We listen intently to the mechanics and instructions during a lecture/briefing session and our brilliant brains identify a gap/question which needs to be addressed. Yet, gripped with fear and shyness, we let the questions pass… only to have them surface later during the course of our work, or allow a co-worker/rival steal ahead of us to “showcase” their wonderful thought process and impress the boss?

Breaking the silence and raising a question can be an extremely scary prospect. Sometimes, it’s really out of respect that we do not wish to rock the boat or question the speaker’s authority or intelligence that keeps us quiet. Other times, we’re just afraid of looking stupid because we’re afraid that we might ask the “wrong” question.

Well, regardless the reason for your fear, I’ve got news to share with you!:


(PS: And it could boost your perceived intelligence too! *winks*)

Won’t you like to find out how asking questions can be a painless and rewarding process? Check out the following keys you can use to ignite your question:

Key Number 1: Just to Clarify…

The “clarification” tool is best used when you’re unsure about something require greater, in-depth explanation or information pertaining to what the speaker said. Hence, the keyword “clarify”!

How to use it:
Step 1: Acknowledge and make reference to what the speaker said
Step 2: Acknowledge and state your intention to clarify something
Step 3: Raise your question

i) Mr __________, I recalled that you mentioned that there’s a 1 out of 450 chance that an asteroid would crash into earth? Just to clarify, could you share with us how did you arrived at that conclusion?

ii) Mr/Ms __________, you mentioned at slide 3 that the purchaser’s income would increase to $45,000. Just to clarify, how did we get that figure?

ii) Sir/Mdm, just to clarify, is there a difference between the definition of “value” and the concept of “worth?

When you use the “clarify” key, you’re effectively absolving yourself from ignorance because you show that you’re thinking about what the speaker said! And trust me, the speaker will be grateful that you did! *winks*

However, there may be times when your topic for clarification might’ve been addressed earlier on. When this happens, you could continue using the clarification key. However, you could use the following key too.

Key Number 2: I’m sorry, I must have missed something…

The apology tool is a variation from the clarification tool, in the sense that it acknowledges that the speaker may have already mentioned or addressed the point that you’d like to seek clarification on.

When things like that happen, it’s always good for you to ask your neighbour if he/she heard or remembers whether the speaker had addressed your question… that is, if he or she bothered to listen, take notes, or stay awake. When all points of confirmation fails, or if time’s pressing, spring the apology tool.

Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Acknowledge that you might’ve missed something that was said earlier
Step 2: Seek to clarify / ask to repeat
Step 3: Raise the question

Mr James, I’m sorry, think I might’ve missed something earlier (acknowledgment). Did you mention (clarification) if we could __________________ (question)

Mr James, I’m not sure if this was mentioned earlier. (acknowledgment) I’m sorry, but what was it you said about integrating process 21 and 23 to cut down our operating costs?

Dr Cheng, could you repeat the format for the exams again (acknowledgment), I don’t seem to be able to remember it…

The one thing I like about the apology tool is that it displays your humility and shows your willingness to (1) admit that you might have missed something, (2) to pay attention, (3) put in effort to process your thoughts.

The apology tool is a great way to show your gratitude and honour the time and effort that speaker took to prepare the presentation. Better still, it’s also a great way to give the speaker room to maneuver had he/she neglect to address an important issue. Your “assumption of responsibility” will do lots to help the speaker, and (trust me) you will not be easily forgotten by the speaker! (Hopefully, he/she’s your boss!)

Key Number 3: I’m just Curious…

This has got to be my all time favourite, because it works EVERYTIME! When all else fails, use this universal key!

Here’s how it works:

Step 1:Tell the speaker that you’re curious
Step 2 (Optional): Give the context
Step 3: Ask the question!

Mr/Mdm __________, you mentioned that the valuation of land should be based on principle of “highest and best use”? I’m just curious… (insert question here)

Mr ___________, you mentioned that a purchaser may finance his/her property by up to 80% of the valuation limit? I’m just curious, what if…

I’m just letting my thoughts run wild, what are the odds that our profit margin’s able to go beyond that figure you’ve given us earlier?

I’m just curious, do you think if we could come up with a shorter plan based on the new requirements we’ve just received.

I’m just wondering… if you’d like to go out with… (okay… you get the picture!)

There’s really no fault to curiosity because people are just born that way! We love to wonder and think about the whys and the hows… so when you’re unsure or are just dying to ask a question, use the universal curiosity key!

* * *

The strategies I’ve just shared have been tried and tested in several settings and they’ve worked like a charm in the context of classrooms, negotiation table or business meeting!

How about that for a set of keys to help you stand out from the crowd?

Use those keys! And share with us your success stories!

Talk soon!


3 thoughts on “Keys to a Question – How to Sound Intelligent when Asking a Question?”

  1. These are great suggestions!

    One thing I would add is that when you experience contradictory information from a customer, presenter, or audience, try what I call the “Columbo” approach. I refer to the Peter Falk TV character who seemed stupid but was actually extremely smart and canny. You might say something like, “Help me here. I am confused. I heard you say “X” and now I hear “Y.” How do those fit together?”

    Thanks for the post Gary

  2. Hi Gary,

    Very impressed with this Article particularly. Thank you Gary for this!

    Personally, I haven’t yet come across this very useful particular article topic out there on the Net?…

    As a professional Business Trainer, Speaker and Image Consultant, I can well see BOTH sides of how these tips would be very useful for both myself and helping others. We as overall speakers and trainers out there may all admit?… That we greatly appreciate an ‘Intelligent Question’ to answer for a change… when it’s being posed to us?

    Also… RE. The ‘Columbo’ Technique – from terrygaultthg?

    To ADD to this for you from my own research and knowledge, there is ANOTHER Version of this ‘Columbo Question’ as well from this famous TV Detective!

    “By the Way?…” –
    This is a clever statement from his Questioning techniques, particularly when leaving the audience with something important as a message, an important ‘final observation’ he noticed that he wanted us the audience to well remember and particularly leave us with.

    It’s ALSO a clever technique in gaining some HUMOR from the audience’s reaction as well! This can make a big difference with a rather DRY topic that we sometimes have to address as part of our overall subject matter?

    I’ve used this a few times in my speeches and training sessions and it WORKS beautifully!

    Thanks again for these Question Tips Gary.

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