Use Questioning Strategies to Engage Your Viewers

Background: A client and I were consulting last week about a gallery talk she had coming up. She wanted help preparing for it because it had turned into something much bigger than she had imagined.

She had a dilemma: How to respond to questions about her process. Not only was she not quite ready to share her process, she also wanted people to be interested in the work beyond the surface.

Everyone seemed focused on the surface and how she got it to look that way. How was she supposed to respond without responding?

Katherine Allen
Katherine Allen, Chinook.
Textile, 58 x 18 inches.©The Artist

I shared with my client a technique we used in museum education: questioning strategies.

Questioning strategies can help you engage your viewers on a much deeper level. They teach your viewer how to look at your art and form opinions.

When done right, questioning strategies also validate those opinions.

Remember that most people don’t know how to look at and talk about art. Using questioning strategies, you can make people feel more comfortable.

The more comfortable they are, the more time they will spend time with you and your art.

To apply the questioning strategies technique, the only rules are that the questions (1) require more than a Yes or No answer and (2) do not have a right or wrong answer.

Oh, yes, here’s one more rule: You, as the questioner, must be willing to accept and embrace the opinions in the responses.

I thought questioning strategies would work for my client’s situation because I don’t believe it’s really the surface of her art that people are interested in.

I think they are trying to start a conversation about the art, and asking how it’s done is their best entrée. That is what they can physically see. I think asking “How did you do that?” is an invitation for further dialog.

This is how my client and I role-played her situation. Pay close attention to the open-ended questions and keep in mind that the viewer is most often a non-artist.

Viewer: How did you do that?

Artist: I assume you’re talking about the surface. What do you find interesting about the surface?

Viewer: It’s just so different. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Artist: What’s different about it?

Viewer: It’s got texture–different from most paintings. It’s kind of glowing from within.

Artist: How did it make you feel?

Viewer: It feels very earthy, yet it’s mysterious. There’s something very spiritual about it.

Artist: You nailed it! That’s exactly how I want you to feel. It is mysterious. In my talk, you heard about my spiritual experience, and now you’re having one of your own. I want you to hold onto that feeling and explore it even further. The mysterious qualities and any divine connection you sense would disappear if I told you exactly how it was done.

Viewer: But I really want to know how you did it.

Artist: I’m sorry I can’t share that with you. I have to keep some of my secrets to myself, and I prefer that other people have the same experience with my art that you just had. Nothing is a higher compliment.

See how easy that was? You ask open-ended questions (three in this case) to engage the viewer, validate his or her experience regardless of what it is, and find a graceful and truthful way to answer any questions as you would like without upsetting anyone.

Related: See the full chapter on speaking I'd Rather Be in the Studio.

KNOW THIS———-~> Questioning strategies can engage and empower your viewers.

THINK ABOUT THIS—~> When could you use questioning strategies?

DO THIS————~> Use questioning strategies to engage your viewers. Here are some to start you off:

What do you see in it?
How did it make you feel?
How does the size affect you? What if it were smaller or larger?
What colors do you see? Look closer. Identify them all.
Do the colors evoke a certain mood?
Does it bring back a memory?
Does it make you think of something else?

Postscript: My client emailed me after her talk. She did indeed use questioning strategies, but she added a twist.

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8 thoughts on “Use Questioning Strategies to Engage Your Viewers”

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  4. Allison, what a fantastic post! I’ve been following you for a couple months now and have benefitted from the practical advice you’re always providing on Art Biz Coach!

    So truly, just as people aren’t sure how to talk about art, we as artists are often just as unsure. We DO the art, but forget to CONNECT through it. Ushering viewers into that connection through questions is such a great exercise. I use questions quite often in my communication, so I really resonate with this post.

    Thanks for sharing!


  5. Pingback: Attracting Crowds at the Coffee Shop — Art Biz Blog

  6. This past weekend I gave a presentation called “The Life of an Artist and the Creative Process,” The presentation talks about what the average working week of an artist looks like and how artists generate ideas which turn into finished artwork. The presentation accompanied an exhibit I current have showing. During the presentation I felt that that my audience wanted to interact more with the images of my art. I kept throwing out open ended questions hoping they would respond, which they did, although very timidly. Now I see that my presentation needs a component that describes the importance of the viewer to the completion of a piece of art. I can include all the, how to view art tips. Which would empower my audience with the confidence to interact more confidently during my presentations. Thank you Alyson for your role in this realization.
    I have to say that although my talk was free, it has generated sales for me. The feedback has also astounded me. I’m still hearing about my talk from people who could not attend. Which makes me wonder if I should schedule another presentation before my show is over.

  7. Pingback: Real Live Art — Art Biz Blog

  8. Pingback: Empowering Art Viewers « Art Biz Blog

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