My friend “Bob”* works for a large organisation – I’ll call them Company X*. Recently, Bob and the Company X team played host to a prospective new client. They’d prepared perfectly – reams of Powerpoint explaining in detail just how great they were, how enormously clever their team was, and what fantastic work they did for their customers.
The visitors sat politely as the presentation progressed, but the body language wasn’t good. Arms crossed, glazed expressions, tension in the air.
Bob, sensing the meeting wasn’t going well, decided to take the initiative. “What is it,” he asked, cutting across his colleagues’ pitch “that you’re trying to do?”
The atmosphere in the room changed immediately. The visitors visibly relaxed. As it turned out, they were dealing with a brain-achingly complex project and under immense pressure to deliver. They needed help and a sympathetic ear, not a monologue.
That simple question told them they would be listened to, opened the door to a conversation, and turned the meeting around.
Questions are powerful. They build connections, challenge assumptions, spark ideas, show we care.
When I seek to persuade, it’s tempting to fall back on what I know – to talk about me and how great I am. To tell my story.
Trouble is, if I don’t know your story, I may wind up telling the wrong story. One that jars instead of resonates.
In the new world of sales, says Daniel Pink in ‘To Sell is Human’, being able to ask the right questions is more valuable than producing the right answers.
Learning to ask questions takes practice. Often we’re taught how to answer, not how to ask. Instead of spending time practising our pitch, Pink suggests preparing for difficult meetings by following the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique to create better questions:
1. Produce your questions – list as many as you can think of, without judging, answering or editing them
2. Improve your questions – go through the list and categorise as open or closed. Think about the advantages/disadvantages of each type. Change some closed to open questions, and some open to closed.
3. Prioritise your questions – choose the three most important questions from your list, based on your aims.
Or you could try Jeremy Stratton’s recommendation: each time you meet someone new, ask them at least 5 questions. Be open and curious. Really listen to the answers. And see what magic you discover.
* Names have been changed to protect the innocent.