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6th June 2013

What great speakers have in common with Socrates

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Brilliant public speakers also need sometimes to be brilliant facilitators, especially if they want to make sure their audience to think and learn as they speak. Socrates mastered the art of questioning - here's what every speaker can learn from him.

Named after Socrates (ca. 470-399 B.C.), the early Greek philosopher/teacher, a Socratic approach to asking questions is based on the practice of thoughtful dialogue. Socrates enjoyed using questions to delve into his audiences' arguments and then show them why their thinking was flawed. Socratic facilitators or public speakers aim not so much to judge the outcome of a discussion, but to deepen the learning of participants.

If an audience think for themselves as you speak, they are more likely to remember your information afterwards. That's what public speakers can learn from Socratic Questioning.

Here are the six facets to Socratic questioning and specific examples you can utilize in your public speaking to boost critical thinking and group interaction.

 

Socratic Questioning Type 1: Conceptual clarification questions

These are "Tell me more please" questions. In a facilitated discussion you can use this type of socratic question to get your audience to think more about their own ideas, or to help them engage in your subject matter. These type of questions "open up" the discussion, encouraging details about a thought process, or for clarification purposes.

  • What do you think about this?
  • What does that mean?
  • Say more?
  • How does that relate to my question?

These questions can also be used as a rhetorical device to guide your audience through your thinking in relation to your subject. Great if you're presenting academic or complex information.

Socratic Questioning Type 2: Probing assumptions

Next, rock the foundations of your audience's world by asking probing questions that challenge their assumptions around your subject matter. This makes your audience think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their beliefs.

  • Is that always true?
  • When else is what you're saying true? When is it not true?
  • What assumptions are you making?

This kind of question is particularly useful if you're looking to build a strong argument around a new way of thinking.

Socratic Questioning Type 3: Probing rationale, reasons and evidence

Reasoning questionsThese type of Socratic questions test the strength of the argument given. If an audience member is giving rationale for their argument in a facilitated discussion, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use weakly understood supports for their arguments.

  • What evidence do you have to support that argument?
  • How do you know that's true?
  • What do you think causes that?

This is also a useful questioning strategy when you're being asked a question that seems tricky to answer. Perhaps the question the audience member is asking is wrong, in which case a reasoning question would help them to see the fault in their own logic.

Socratic Questioning Type 4: Questioning viewpoints and perspectives

In a brainstorm you might want to expand the range of possible solutions in a group. Most arguments are given from a particular position. So challenge the position. Show that there are other, equally valid, viewpoints.

  • What's another way of looking at that?
  • How would this look to a child/manager/outsider?
  • What's the counter argument?

This is a great way to 'coach' an audience round to a new way of thinking.

Socratic Questioning Type 5: Probe implications and consequences

This type of Socratic question helps analysing the implications of a line of reasoning. Do the argument we're following make sense? Is the outcome from this perspective desirable?

  • What would happen if...?
  • Why is that important?
  • How could we use this to help us...?

These questions start to bring the conversation towards a conclusion and are often used to start to sum up a discussion, or to develop action points.

Socratic Questioning Type 6: Questions about the question

Finally, if you're feeling really flash, you might get questiony about the question. In other words... allow the audience to evaluate the relevance of the discussion to them.

  • Why do you think I'm asking this question?
  • How relevant is this discussion to your life?
  • What's important about this question?

This is a useful tool to connect the audience to the purpose of your talk or discussion - and might be used towards the start of a talk to create audience buy-in, or towards the end to evaluate what has been discussed.

 

Skillful Socratic Questions can help our audience to connect with our material, question their traditional perspectives and buy into a new argument. I see any type of public speaking as a form of "teaching"... sharing information about a subject that is important to us and to the audience. Instead of throwing an endless supply of content at your audience why not help them actually think about your information by using Socratic questioning?

What would happen if you did? :-)

 

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