What would you like to know before we begin?

Recently, I gave a property development company in Kuala Lumpur an experience of Clean Language and how they could model working at their best. It was just a one-hour lunch presentation for their Toastmasters Club so I needed to ensure brevity and impact.


One of the best ways to do that is, for me, to ask attendees: What would you like to know before we begin?


I didn’t have to say more when the company’s general manager asked cheekily, ‘Can I use this to swear cleanly?’ Earlier, he had spoken about his propensity for swearing.


The room chortled. So did I. I repeated his question, and put that up on the flipchart. And to engage the others, I said a little bit more. ‘You’re all sitting here. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you like or how you learn or what you want to do. So, I’ve got some experience and I’ve got you. What would the rest of you like to know before we begin?


And rather than spend time doing a back and forth, if you could just speak up, and I’ll repeat what you say and write it up on the flipchart. What is it you want to know about me or about the process in order that this is a really useful hour of your time?’


These were their questions:

‘Are you Chinese?’ (In Malaysia, there is a preoccupation with one’s racial identity.)

‘Will we have toilet breaks?’
‘What is Clean Language?’
‘Will we learn anything from this one hour?’
‘Can I use Clean Language in a sales pitch?’
‘Can I use it to change my relationship with my wife/colleague?’
‘Should we teach Clean Language to our kids?’
‘Can I use it to impress someone in three minutes?’
‘Can I use it to manage conflict?’
‘Can I use it in daily conversations?’


What happened next


Asking that one question helped me to understand where their attention was.


I looked at their questions and decided which ones I would answer right away and which ones I wouldn’t.


I decided I would answer the question about my identity first: ‘I’m Malaysian. My mother is Teo Chew and my father is Eurasian.’


The general manager, who looked Eurasian, immediately spoke up. ‘Oh, we may be related!’


‘You may be right,’ I said to him. ‘My father loves to swear as well!’ That got the whole room laughing, and I could tell I was building rapport. Next, I invited the attendees to take charge of their learning states, if they needed a toilet break, it was OK if they took it.


I then grouped the following questions,


‘Will we learn anything from this one hour?’
‘Can I use it to change my relationship with my wife/colleague?’
‘Should we teach Clean Language to our kids?’
‘Can I use it to impress someone in three minutes?’ and said,


‘I don’t know. Would you like to experience Clean Language and find out?’ I saw nods.


And then, I grouped the other questions,


‘Can I use this to swear cleanly?’
‘Can I use Clean Language in a sales pitch?’
‘Can I use it to manage conflict?’
‘Can I use it in daily conversations?’ and said,


‘Would it be OK if we parked these questions first? If by the end of the hour, your still don’t have an answer, please ask me your question again. Would that be OK?’ Again, there was agreement.


I then carried on by answering ‘What is Clean Language?’, and then gave the attendees some exercises to experience it.


Finding their own answers


At the end of the presentation, I returned to the flipchart. I spoke to the people whose questions I had not answered earlier:


‘And did you learn anything?’
‘Would you teach this to your kids?’
‘How could you use this in a sales pitch? Or to manage conflict?’


Everyone who had asked a question could answer their question without my giving them one.


After the presentation, I was told the Toastmasters Club had not had such a ‘noisy’ lunch event before, because of the high level of participation and engagement this time round.


I reckon, none of that could have happened, if I hadn’t started with, ‘And what would you like to know before we begin?’


That question was like a compass for me as facilitator. It also allowed me to build rapport with the attendees. The attendees’ questions also kept them curious and engaged about learning Clean Language. And at the end of the session, they had not only learned a new communication tool. They had also learned that they could discover their own answers and deepen their understanding about each other by being Clean.


By asking ‘What would you like to know before we begin?’, and then facilitating the group cleanly, we all got so much out of it.



Jacqueline Ann Surin is the first certified Level 1 Systemic Modeller outside of the UK. She is an associate of Training Attention and is leading the development of Clean Language in Malaysia with Anne Munro-Kua Transformations. Her lunch-hour presentation was modelled on Caitlin Walker’s keynote address at the ICF on Tour in Brussels.

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  1. Thank you for sharing. I think this would work really well with the new hospice volunteers that I teach from time to time. To record their learning needs, as they perceive them, at the very beginning would be helpful to all of us I think.

  2. Excellent approach! So helpful for targeting the information and needs of the group. Thanks for your contribution!


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