Answer Why? What? How? and What if? – Opening Lines

How to engage everyone in your audience

The four questions are based on ‘The 4Mat System’ by Bernice McCarthy. The system is useful for structuring presentations in a way that the maximum number of people will understand. It works because members of your audience will be interested, to a greater or lesser extent, in the four different types of questions.  By covering all four of them you will appeal to most, if not all, of your audience.

Think through the four types of questions on the minds of any audience

Why it matters

Answering the four questions enables you to:

  • Plan content that will interest all, or most, people
  • Structure content in an easy-to-follow sequence
  • Reduce the risk of missing something vital from your talk
  • Increase the chances of gaining buy-in
  • Enhance the possibility of the audience taking actions you desire

What to do

Put yourself in the minds of your audience and answer the questions below.

1. Why?

Imagine you are an audience member:

Ask yourself:

  • ‘Why should I listen?’
  • ‘Why is this topic important?’
  • ‘Why are you the right person to speak about it?’
  • ‘Why now?’

Think of more ‘why’ questions pertinent to your topic.

2. What?

Ask yourself:

  • ‘What’s the key message?’
  • ‘What’s the big idea?’
  • ‘What’s the theory or model?
  • ‘What’s the key information or evidence they need to hear?

Write down any more you can think of.

3. How?

Ask practical questions such as:

  • ‘How does it actually work?’
  • ‘Can you explain the practicalities?’
  • ‘How about some examples?’
  • ‘Can we see some evidence to support your theory?’
  • ‘Can you demonstrate it?’

4. What If?

There are two kinds of ‘what if’ questions.

a. Negative ‘what ifs’?

These are potential snags such as:

  • Risks in what you are proposing
  • Flaws in your argument
  • Counter-examples that might dilute or refute your case
  • Exceptional circumstances when your guidance would not apply

Such concerns might sound like this:

  • ‘What if there is not enough in the budget?’
  • ‘What if the scope of the project gets wider?’
  • ‘What if the client doesn’t pay us on time?
  • ‘What if I don’t have all that equipment?’

Think of your own questions specific to your situation.


Ask someone to play ‘devil’s advocate’ and think of the most difficult questions that could come up.

5. Positive ‘what ifs’?

This is where people are already thinking about the future and imagining:

  • Where the information they have gleaned will be of use
  • The positive results of actions recommended
  • A vision of a successful future

Such thoughts can translate into questions such as:

  • ‘Where will this be useful to me?”
  • ‘How can I apply this idea?
  • ‘What if I were to put this into practice?’
  • ‘When will we see the results?’

Decide which of the above questions apply to your topic and add more that relate to your own talk.

Keep the answers and use them to help you decide what to include in your talk.

Think through the four questions before every talk and you will be well-prepared

Your Turn

Get used to using the four questions:

  1. Think of a topic you have to speak about.
  2. Think of all the questions that could be on the minds of the audience.
  3. Write them down under the headings; Why? What? How? What If?
  4. Use your answers as material for your talk.

Useful if you want to explore the system in depth and is helpful for applications to teaching and learning.

Learn more public speaking secrets in ‘The Speaker’s Coach: 60 secrets to make your talk, speech or presentation amazing’ by Graham Shaw. Published by Pearson and available from all good bookshops and Amazon.

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