You have not been invited to give a speech. Before you stand up, boil your thoughts down to a single point. Then ask yourself if this point is something you want to assert or something you want to find out. There are exceptions, but if your point falls into the category of assertion, you should probably remain seated. “Mr. Nixon, you are unworthy of being president,” is not a question. “Mr. Nixon, what else would you have done as president if Watergate hadn’t gotten in the way?” is a question.
Weigh the usual interrogatory words in English: who, what, where, why, when. If you can begin your sentence with one of these you are more than half-way to a good question. “Who gave you that scar, Mr. Potter?” “What is a black hole, Mr. Hawking?” “Where is the Celestial City, Mr. Bunyan?” “Why are you wearing that letter, Ms. Prynne?” “When will our troops come home, Mr. Lincoln?”
You will discover that, if you think in terms of these simple interrogatories, you will be able to skip right over the prologue. The right question evokes its own context. If, having formulated a question, you still think you need to set the stage for it, try again.
Don’t engage in meta-speech. “I was wondering, Ms. Steinem, if I might ask you a question that I am really curious about.” Go directly to the question. “Ms. Steinem, who is the man you admire the most?”
Look at the person you are addressing. Speak your question directly; don’t read it. Wait for the answer before you sit down. Don’t try to ask a follow-up question. If the speaker evaded your question the first time, he will evade it again. If the audience applauds your question, you are grandstanding and have failed an important test of civility.More tips and discussion at the original article. I wonder, how often in your UW courses do you feel that you really get the chance in lecture or discussion to ask a substantive question? I fear that we instructors might subtly (or not so subtly) discourage you from doing so. If that is the case — be bold. Ask good questions.