Have you ever had the dubious pleasure of presenting a proposal to someone who had a knack for asking exactly the right question to get right to the heart of the matter, or to expose all the things you didn’t think of before you went in?
How would you like to make sure you won’t get exposed if you have to do it again, or better yet, become one of those people yourself?
Many senior executives have developed that ability through years of experience in evaluating proposals and ideas, but there is a way to shortcut the learning process. It’s a powerful tool kit developed by Vervago called Precision Questioning, and I like it so much that it is the only material I teach that I’ve licensed from someone else.
Precision questions can be used to test the soundness of an idea, whether you’re evaluating someone else’s or if you want to test your own idea before putting your credibility on the line. I’ve personally found it useful to prepare for critical presentations and sales calls.
It comprises seven types of questions:
Go/No Go: Should we have this discussion right now, and if so, how should we talk about it? Just asking these types of questions could save untold hours in unproductive meetings.
Clarification: What do you mean? One of the quickest ways to spot the shallowness of someone’s thinking is to determine how vague their terms are. Clarification questions can clarify meaning or quantity. Remember the Mars orbiter that missed its target because of confusion whether a set of measurements was metric or imperial units? One simple clarification could have saved hundreds of millions of dollars.
Assumption: What are the assumptions you are making? We couldn’t function without assumptions, but sometimes we need to reexamine them, especially in a dynamic environment. In 2003, we assumed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. As I’ve written before, there are at least a dozen different types of assumptions that people can make, and they are the hardest to uncover because we tend to take them for granted.
Data: What’s the quality of the evidence? Is it accurate, relevant and sufficient? Persuasive communication is fundamentally about credibility, and credibility ultimately rests on being right, and being able to show you’re right with sound evidence.
Causes: What’s causing the situation that needs to be changed or resolved? Are we addressing the problem at the correct level? Sometimes we need to drill all the way down to root causes, and sometimes a band-aid will suffice. (If you’re not sure, ask a few go/no go or consequences questions).
Consequences: What happens if we do this? What happens if we don’t? What are possible side effects? What are the opportunity costs?
Actions: What should we do about this? What specific time-bound steps will everyone take? How does this align with our strategies or other initiatives?
For every one of the seven types of questions, there are various subsets and an endless variety of specific drill-downs that you could ask depending on the situation, and on the answers you get. Great questioners can easily ask dozens in a brief conversation, because they usually know precisely what they’re looking for. The questions are not a script that are followed in any particular order; you still have to use your own judgment and experience to direct the conversation
There is an endless variety of ways you can express your message to increase their chance of being accepted by others, many of which I’ve written about in this blog. But in the end, the best way to get your ideas to stick is to have good ideas. The best way to ensure your ideas are good is to think about them carefully and pressure test them through a rigorous—and precise—questioning process.