Ask Better Questions

“Be a good listener,” Dale Carnegie advised in his 1936 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.”  Effectively asking questions is a big part of a leader’s job. Good decision-making is based on information we obtain by asking the right questions. Making a sale, including handling objections, is also supported by effective questioning.

Many of us hesitate to ask questions, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s because we don’t want to be perceived as intrusive. Other times,  we worry that our questions may be viewed as silly and make us appear incompetent.  On the other hand, one might assume that more information is not necessary.  In every instance, an opportunity to obtain valuable information is lost.

Alison Woods Brooks, an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Business School who teaches Negotiation and is affiliated with the Behavioral Insights Group and Leslie K. John, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, understand that effective questioning is a skill that can be honed to make our conversations more productive.

The two offer guidance on the best type of questions to ask, tone of voice to use, the sequence of questions and how to frame the questions.  The best approach for a given situation depends on the goals of those in conversation.  Is the discussion  cooperative (e.g., relationship-building or accomplishing a task together) or  competitive (the parties seek to uncover sensitive information from each other or serve their own interests), or some combination of both? Brooks and her research team employed human coding and machine learning to identify four types of questions:

  • Introductory questions (“How are you?”)
  • Mirror questions (“I’m fine. How are you?”)
  • Full-switch questions (change the topic entirely)
  •  Follow-up questions (solicit more information)

Follow-up

Although each question type flows naturally in conversation, follow-up questions have special power. Follow-up questions signal to your conversation partner that you are listening, that you care and that you want to know more. People interacting with a conversation partner who asks lots of follow-up questions tend to feel respected and heard. According to Leslie K. John, “Most people don’t grasp that asking a lot of questions unlocks learning and improves interpersonal bonding.” Plus, follow-up questions don’t require much thought or preparation and usually come naturally to the questioner.

Yet be advised that no one likes to feel interrogated. Furthermore, closed-end questions tend to yield one-word answers. Open-ended questions counteract that effect and for that reason, they can be particularly useful in uncovering information or learning something new. In fact, they are wellsprings of innovation—which is often the result of finding the hidden, unexpected answer that no one has thought of before.

Sequencing

If the goal is to build relationships, opening with less sensitive questions and escalating slowly seems to be most effective.  In a set of studies (the results of which went viral following a write-up in the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times), psychologist Arthur Aron recruited strangers to come to the lab, paired them up and gave them a list of questions.  Participants were told to work their way through the list, starting with relatively shallow inquiries and progressing to more self-revelatory ones, such as “What is your biggest regret?”

Pairs in the control group were asked simply to interact with each other. The pairs who followed the prescribed structure liked each other more than the control pairs. This effect is so strong that it has been formalized in a task called “the relationship closeness induction,” a tool used by researchers to build a sense of connection among the participants.

Tone

People are more forthcoming when you ask questions in a casual way, rather than in a terse, official tone. In general, an overly formal tone is likely to inhibit people’s willingness to share information.

Group dynamics

Conversational dynamics can change profoundly depending on whether you’re chatting one-on-one with someone or talking in a group. Not only is the willingness to answer questions impacted by the presence of others, but members of a group tend to follow one anothers lead. In a meeting or group setting, it takes only a few closed-off people for questions to lose their probing power.  Conversely, if even one person starts to open up on a topic, the rest of the group is likely to follow suit.

Art of the response

Conversation is a dance, a mutual push-and-pull. Just as the way we ask questions can facilitate trust and the sharing of information so, too, can the way we answer them. Answering questions requires making a choice about where to fall on a continuum between privacy and transparency.  How should I answer this question? Assuming that I answer, how forthcoming can I afford to be? What should one do when asked a question that, if answered truthfully, might reveal a less-than-flattering information, or put one in a disadvantaged strategic position?

Each end of the spectrum—fully opaque and fully transparent—has benefits and pitfalls.  In negotiations, withholding sensitive information (e.g., that your alternatives are weak) can help you secure better outcomes. At the same time, transparency is an essential part of building meaningful connections. Even in a negotiation context, transparency can lead to value-creating deals; by sharing information, participants can identify elements that are relatively unimportant to one party but important to the other—the foundation of a win-win outcome.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: The Dating Game, 1965- 1973 (ABC-TV)

 

 

Advertisements

Storytelling Made Simple

What would be useful for my audience to learn and how can I package this lesson or bit of information in a compelling story format?“—Travis Bernard, content marketing guru at TechCrunch, the leading technology industry blog based in San Francisco, CA

Whaddaya say we learn how to put together a good story for your marketing content? Some people are natural storytellers and others aren’t, but it’s always useful to develop and hone the art of storytelling when one is a public speaker and that includes Freelancers, business owners and sales professionals who must speak with prospective clients to generate sales or billable hours.  Your story need not be long and elaborate.  In fact, a concise narrative will be more memorable and impactful.

Your content marketing story will describe a client experience journey.  The story will feature three main characters—the hero, the villain and the mentor.  The story will have a beginning, middle and end.  A call-to-action, when you encourage your content reader to act on the information that you’ve shared, will be the story’s epilogue.

The hero of the story will have a problem to solve or avoid, a challenge to overcome, and that is the goal.  The hero will be waylaid or deceived by the villain, that is, an obstacle that is preventing him/her from achieving the goal.  The hero must seek knowledge and guidance from a mentor during the journey and that is your role, storyteller friend.

Act I is when the hero acknowledges that there is a problem to solve.  There is a goal to achieve and an effective solution will be necessary.

Act II will describe the magnitude of the problem and the failures of various less than stellar solutions that the hero has tried and discarded (homegrown remedies or competitive products).

Act III is where you come in, the mentor who helps the hero make sense of the possible solutions and explains how your product or service can resolve the matter.  The hero agrees to adopt your product or service and the problem is resolved.  The hero looks like a genius to his/her superiors and colleagues.

The Epilogue features the call-to-action, when you show the content reader how to obtain an effective solution for his/her goal, a solution that will overcome the challenge and make the content reader look like a hero to the higher-ups.

Be advised that the hero of the content story is never the product or service.  The hero of the story is the protagonist, s/he who takes action and moves the journey forward to its triumphant conclusion.  The client is always the hero of the story.  You, the storyteller and possessor of expertise, serve as a mentor, to ensure that the hero will prevail and achieve the goal.  Your product or service supports the hero by overcoming the challenge and enabling achievement of the goal.

The purpose of your content/ story is to persuade the reader to act upon the information that you’ve delivered.  Integral to persuading the reader is to build trust in you as a mentor/ expert and confidence in the solutions that you recommend and provide. You may be able to persuade content readers to give your post a Like, or share it with others.  The ultimate validation is when content readers are so confident in your proposed solution that they click through to your website shopping cart or contact you to ask questions about how you might handle a project.

Finally, you’ll need a specific story to tell (and eventually, you’ll have two or three more). Without naming names, your content/ story will the based on a client who has successfully used your product or service.  If you will tell your company’s brand story to promote awareness, your content story will illustrate why company founders were motivated to form the venture and include mention of the mission, values and guiding principles.

Client experience journey content stories, or your company’s brand story, can be included in your blog, social media posts, white papers, videos and so on. You’re sure to find that they help prospects envision their own circumstances and how your products or services can be useful.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Photograph: Portrait of Clementina Maude (circa 1862) taken by her mother, Lady Clementina Hawarden (Viscountess Hawarden of England, 1822-1865)

The Data Driven Payoff

Because the February-March session sold out,  I have been invited to reprise my three-part workshop  “Become Your Own Boss: Effective Business Plan Writing”  at Boston Center for Adult Education 122 Arlington Street Boston MA on three Mondays,  May 9, 16 & 23 from 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM.  For more information or to register please visit http://bit.ly/becomeyourown59  or call 617.267.4430.

As Freelance consultants,  we know that information is nearly as valuable to us as our skill set.  Information leads us to make smart decisions about all aspects of business: what services to offer,  identifying target client groups,  determining a profitable business model,  understanding how to market our services,  gaining a competitive edge.  That good information is integral to all that we do comes as no surprise,  but until now there was no scientific evidence to support that belief.

New research done by Erik Brynjolfsson,  economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Business,  Heekyung Kim,  graduate student in economics at MIT Sloan School and Lorin Hitt,  economist at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business proves that good information really does put money in your pocket.

The three studied 179 large businesses and found that when decisions enacted were based on reliable data,  companies achieved a 5+ % higher productivity level than businesses that relied more on “experience and intuition” for decision making.  The higher productivity could not be attributed to other factors,  such as the use of more sophisticated technology.

In the study,  data driven decision making was not primarily based on merely collecting data,  but was closely linked to how the data was utilized.  In the April 24, 2011 New York Times,  Mr. Brynolfsson stated that business decisions based on data and analysis “have huge implications for competitiveness and growth”.

Thomas Davenport,  professor of information technology and management at Babson College in Massachusetts supported the conclusions reached regarding data driven business decisions in a book written with Jeanne Harris and Robert Morison, “Analytics at Work: Smarter Results” (2010),  concluding that companies that rely heavily on data analysis are likely to outperform those that do not.

The big question is,  which data do we choose to collect and analyze and how do we best apply it?  Curating data is big business.  “The biggest change facing corporations is the explosion of data”,  said David Grossman,  technology analyst at Stifel Nicolaus in the April 24 NY Times.  “The best business is in helping customers analyze and manage all that data”.

How does a Freelancer decide what to do with data available to us?  I propose that data presented here would guide readers with excellent proficiency in mathematics and possessed of an advanced degree in the subject to become data analysts!  All others might take a look at our P & L statements and examine gross revenue and fixed and variable expenses and analyze how much it costs to generate income and what can be trimmed to make the bottom line better.

Speaking of revenue,  do some research on the services that your target clients are contracting for these days.  Are you retaining clients and signing new ones, too?  How does your 2Q 2011 active client roster compare to 2Q 2010?  Do you need to tweak your business model to maintain your competitive edge,  or might it be wiser to seek a strategic partnership?

To help figure things out,  do a free online search of Google’s Key Word Tool or Wonder Wheel and type in a descriptive phrase of your core service.  How many prospects in your locale are searching for what you sell?  Next,  type in a phrase that describes the service you think might interest clients and see how many local searches it gets.  There you have it,  data driven analysis to guide your business decisions.

Use Google Analytics to track hits to your website and report which pages receive the most attention.  You can correlate that data to the number of follow-up requests you receive and  the conversion of that follow-up to new business.  Make further use of that data to evaluate the efficacy of your website and learn how you can enhance this important marketing tool.  Will adding multimedia to your website be useful?  Or will adding pages to give more information do the trick?  Or maybe you should just simplify the text and clarify and strengthen your message?  Listen to the data and find your answers.

Thanks for reading,

Kim