When you are making a presentation or giving a speech, it can be really helpful to check in with your audience about whether they’re understanding.
It’s also helpful to think carefully in advance about who your audience is and what it’s likely that they will already know, and what it’s likely that they will understand easily. But no presenter gets that right 100% of the time, so it’s also good to check in with your audience about what they are understanding.
Not every strategy for checking in works well. In particular: questions like “Does everyone know what this is?” or “Does everybody understand?” are usually not helpful. The problem is that these kinds of questions have an apparent right answer, along the lines of “yes, of course, please go on.”
These questions are often heard as “Do you understand, or are you too stupid to follow what I’m saying?” or “Do you know about this, or are you shamefully ignorant?” It’s not comfortable to say “No, I don’t know” or “No, I don’t understand.”
It is much more helpful to ask questions in a way that makes it clear that it’s ok not to understand.
Saying “Who knows what this is?” or “Would anyone like me to explain this?” or “Are there any questions so far?”
When you check understanding, it’s also important to pause to give people a chance to form questions. People can’t usually react immediately, so if you go on too fast, it can sound like “I don’t really want you to ask questions, I just feel like I should pretend to.”
tl;dr Checking in with your audience is great; asking “does everyone understand?” isn’t an effective way to check in because people are unlikely to feel comfortable saying “I don’t understand”.
MAYMAY [just after giving a very heady 90m keynote]: Well, I think that went well! People seemed to like it.
ME: Yeah, I think they enjoyed it! It might’ve been a little over peoples’ heads, but the parts they got they seemed to find interesting.
MAYMAY: Wait, you don’t think they understood it?
ME: Well…no, not entirely.
MISH: *shakes head* No.
MAYMAY: But! I asked if anyone had any questions and nobody raised their hands or anything. :/
ME and MISH: *blink* … *start laughing*
ME: Ohh, right! You didn’t go to school! Sometimes I forget…
MISH: People don’t ask questions in class if they don’t understand something. Because then they look stupid and get in trouble.
ME: The only reason you ask a question in class is to prove you do understand something. The point of asking questions is to show off to the teacher.
MISH: Yeah, if you don’t understand, you’re just supposed to shut up.
ME: So, if you ask “Does anybody have any questions?” and nobody has any questions, that’s generally an indication that nobody understands what you’re talking about.
MAYMAY: …Ohh. Wow. School is TERRIBLE!
This is not generally limited to school only. It extends to general social interaction and social media. It results in a self-censorship environment of silence. One of the manifestations of it online has been the lurker phenomena wherein 70% of people will simply listen to discussions and only like 10% engage in discussions critically with the intent to understand. Most social interactions are not actually about understanding what is being discussed but are about social participation for its own sake without regard to formal process, logical or empirical consequences, efficiency, or general effectiveness. Most people who participate in social media and interaction are simply in it for the feel good vibes and attention.