I enjoy asking questions. It is easier for me to contribute to a project if I have as much information as possible before I start jumping in with random ideas. I like to know what the goals are, who the stakeholders are, whether the project has run into any challenges before, whether new ideas might be welcome and much more. The more information I have, the more likely that I can be helpful as I try to come up with new ideas.
In my current role as a career adviser, it is also important for me to ask lots of questions. I find that I often have to really listen to what the students and postdocs with whom I am meeting are saying, and then ask questions, because the challenge they talk about may not actually be the challenge they need to talk about. And I can only identify that real challenge by actively listening to both what they are saying and what they might be trying to say.
I got into the habit of asking a lot of questions when I was an undergraduate. I was one of several students who sat in the back of the lecture rooms and threw out questions at every opportunity. We weren’t trying to be annoying, and most of our lecturers were more than happy to engage in discussions with us as they tried to answer our questions. Admittedly, not all of these questions were well thought out; some were based on an obvious lack of understanding or knowledge of the topic. But most helped us clarify what we were being taught and served to illustrate to the professor that we were engaging in the topic.
What’s more, asking not-so-good questions was a good learning experience as it helped us figure out how to ask better questions. Also, every professor knew the names of the students from the back row -- which is actually a good outcome, too.
Asking good questions is a great skill to develop at any point in time. But it can be especially helpful if you are in the midst of looking for a job. Without even touching on the benefits of asking informed questions as part of your informational interviewing, here are five good reasons to ask a question at the next workshop, conference speaker presentation, or panel discussion you attend that will be very helpful during your job hunt or as you are developing a professional network. Asking questions is good for:
1. Paying attention (the key to asking good questions). If you set a goal for yourself to ask a good question in every presentation that you attend, then you will find that you’ll be paying much more attention to the content of these presentations. After all, it is hard to ask an informed question if you have been playing around on your favorite social media website for most of the time instead of listening.
In addition to taking away some facts that you might be able to use for yourself at some point in the future, paying attention and then asking a good question has the added benefit of making the speaker feel good, too. No, this isn’t your job, but when you next give a presentation, you’ll certainly feel much happier when someone extends you the same courtesy by asking you a thoughtful question. There is no harm in banking some good karma, and being appreciated by speakers is never a bad outcome.
2. Practicing your pitch. Asking a question in a room full of people is a great way of practicing your own public speaking skills, because you need to be able to formulate a clear and concise question, stand up confidently, project your voice, and speak in a context-appropriate tone (i.e., not too aggressively, defensively or timidly). If you get butterflies in your stomach at the thought of any public speaking activity, then start off by asking questions. This is low-pressure public speaking, but it still counts as a good experience.
What’s more, the chances are high that someone else wanted to know the answer to the question you asked. If you have ever been beaten to the post by someone else who asked exactly the same question you had been thinking about asking, you know how it feels when they get the “Yes, that’s a great question” response from the speaker: not good! Once you have conquered your fear of the 20-second question, you can move on to overcome other public speaking fears.
3. Networking. Don’t forget, when you do stand up in a crowded room full of people to ask your question, you have the potential to supercharge your networking efforts. Let’s say you are at a conference. You could be surrounded by people in similar fields who might be interested in connecting with you in some way if only they knew who you were and what you do. Here’s how you can increase the chances that important people will come to know who you are:
- Stand up when you ask your questions. People need to see you to remember you.
- Introduce yourself by clearly stating your name and affiliation. “I’m Joseph Barber, associate director at the University of Pennsylvania, I have a question about ….”
- Speak clearly enough so that people can actually hear your question -- or wait for the microphone to be passed to you if you are in a room where there are microphones being passed around. The 20-50 people who hear you now know who you are and where you are from. When it comes to networking, that’s progress!
Short of giving a presentation yourself, it is a great way of being known in your field -- as long as you follow the first two points above. If you ask interested questions in a public setting, people will oftentimes come and introduce themselves to you after the fact, because they are interested in knowing more about you -- probably because they had similar questions.
4. Even more networking. Having been an active participant in the discussion by asking a question, it now becomes easier for you to network with the speaker. You will have a good excuse keep the conversation going after the presentation. For example: “Hi, I was the person who asked the question about X. Thanks for your answer. It really helped me understand the issue more clearly -- I do have one more question ….”
You have made a connection by asking the question and can build on this to further develop your relationship with the speaker. Remember my undergraduate lecturers I mentioned? They definitely remembered me and my questioning peers, and they played an important role in writing really great reference letters for graduate school applications.
5. Finding answers! Don’t overlook the most obvious reason to ask questions: to get answers! These answers might help you to be more successful in your work, your career exploration or your job applications.
So, whenever you attend a presentation, challenge yourself to ask a question. You will find that there are many benefits beyond just the responses you receive.
Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.
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