Author Archives: Jack Malcolm

Book reviews - General business books - Questioning skills

Book Recommendation: Ask More

If you could think of one change to make in your communication habits that would make you more influential, more interesting, and more well-liked, what would it be? The answer, according to Frank Sesno—and one which I strongly endorse—is to ask more questions. In his book, Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change, Sesno, a former CNN anchor, explains why questions are so powerful and how to ask them.

In this review, I will ask and answer four questions:

  • Why should you ask more questions?
  • Why read this book?
  • What are some of the main lessons?
  • How should you read the book?

Why ask more questions?

You probably don’t ask enough questions—so what? The big-picture answer, filtered through the lens of lean communication, is that you are producing less value and more waste than you should. Value is defined by the listener, and if you don’t know your listeners as well as you should, how can you express your points in ways that are most likely to resonate with them? Asking more questions helps you zero in on exactly what’s important to the other person. But even better, asking questions engages the other person so that together you both create more value and more memorable communication. I love this quote from the book: “People forget what they heard, but they remember almost everything they say.”

Why read this book?

There are many good books on questioning, written from the perspective of sales, psychology, management[1], etc. but this is the first one (that I’ve read, at least) by a journalist, who by definition makes his living through the quality of his questions. Besides the credibility it adds to the book, Sesno’s professional expertise adds two other assets that make Ask More worth reading. First, he knows how to find other credible sources, so he is not just relying on what has worked for him, as so many experts do, and this brings a breadth and diversity of different situations and applications where questioning is helpful. of questioning applications. Second, he knows how to tell stories lucidly and concisely, so the book makes for pleasant and engaging reading.

What are some of the main lessons?

The book is organized into chapters that explain how to ask questions for different purposes, from solving problems to inspiring others, to sparking creative thinking, to building rapport. But regardless of your purpose in asking questions, some general principles come through. Probably the most important is that you should have a purpose and a plan for your questions. Your plan will help ensure that you don’t miss anything important, and your purpose will keep you on track when the person you’re interviewing inevitably throws you off your plan, whether accidentally or on purpose. Second is the importance of knowing how to listen to the answers and what to listen for—especially what is not being said. Third, by learning the basic structure of each specific questioning application, you can apply a reasonably repeatable process that will save you time and ensure you don’t miss anything.

How should you read the book?

If there is one improvement opportunity I would suggest for this book, it would be to go a bit lighter on the stories and heavier on the “how-to”. For example, in the chapter on empathetic questioning, as he introduces a man who got John Hinckley to open up through questions, do we really need to know the path of each of the six bullets John Hinckley fired? That’s why I would suggest that you begin reading the book at page 211, which begins the “Question Guide” section, where the basics of each major questioning task are laid out. Then, you can go back through the book and read the sections that you find most useful, and having the layout of each section in mind will make it easier to tease out the lessons from the stories and extraneous detail.

Despite that last quibble, Ask More is an important and worthwhile book. We can all benefit from improving the quantity and quality of the questions we ask, and I personally resolve to improve on that this year. So, let me end with one more question:

What are you waiting for?

[1] A few good examples: SPIN Selling and Question Based Selling for Sales; Leading with Questions, for leadership;

Humble Inquiry, for psychology.

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The Power and Perils of Megativity

No, it’s not a typo. Megative is a word I’ve coined to describe the tendency some people have to puff everything up; everything is mega. Megative people use awesome and world-class to describe even the most average and mundane things. To them, everything is the greatest, or the absolute worst. There is very little middle ground or nuance, because moderation is for sissies. More familiar synonyms are hyperbole, puffery, immoderation and bullshit, and in this post-truth time we’re living in, it appears to be getting more and more common. But is it bad? Is megative negative?

If I were to be megative, I would stake out an extreme position and tell you it’s the worst thing in the world or the best. But the truth is, it depends.

First, it depends on why or how it’s used. There are four types of megativity which I can think of. (There may be more, but since I made up the word, I can claim to be the world’s greatest expert on it.) Starting from the most positive and heading downhill from there, they are:

  • Built-in megativity, which is a natural part of your personality. The best example I can think of is my friend John Spence, who looks at the brightest possible side of anything he encounters; even when you think he overdoes things, you don’t mind because his enthusiasm is infectious.
  • Marketing megativity, which is using it as an effective tool for influence, as in the examples I’ve described. People may discount it, but they see it as a legitimate form of expression, and in fact if you aren’t exaggerating a little, maybe you’re not trying hard enough.
  • Dunning-Kruger megativity, so named because of the psychological effect whereby those who are least competent in a topic are most self-confident. D-K megativity is ignorant self-delusion, where you actually think you are the world’s greatest. By coincidence, the initials match nicely what I call DK², which is when you don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Bald-faced lying. When Trump says such and such a policy will be terrific, it’s tough to tell whether it’s marketing or self-delusion. But when he says he won one of the greatest landslides in history, that’s outright lying. (Obviously, since he won the election, it worked for him. But you’re not him and you’re a serious business communicator, so don’t try it.)

Megative statements have the power to persuade, or they can backfire on you. Let’s look at the pros and cons:

The Pros

The first two types of megativity can make you a more persuasive communicator, for the following reasons:

It can grab the audience’s attention. In his new book, Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman writes: “The moment that Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone turns out to have been a pivotal junction in the history of technology and the world.” You can’t get any more megative than that. Whether you agree or disagree with the statement, you’re compelled to keep reading, to find out why he says that or how he backs up such a brash statement.

Megative statements are especially useful to snap your audience into attention at the beginning of presentations. Once, I taught a class on presentations to senior executives, and I began by saying: “Welcome to possibly the most important class you will ever take.” When I said that, I had every eye in the room riveted on me, and I knew I had them. (However, note that a truly megative person would not have used the word possibly.)

Megative statements, even though they are by definition less likely to be true, can actually make you more credible because they exude confidence, and confidence sells. Being social animals, humans are exquisitely sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues that indicate relative levels of status within groups. Those who act more assertively and confidently tend to be accorded higher status, and in general are perceived to be more competent than they actually are.[1]

Megative talk sells, because it shows passion and enthusiasm. As the world’s master of megative talk says: “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

Megative talk may also harness the power of anchoring. While they may discount your initial evaluation, it’s possible that they won’t adjust enough, so you end up closer to where you wanted to be. It’s similar to what Robert Cialdini calls the “Door In The Face” (DITF) influence technique, where you ask for something outlandish and get refused, and then your next request seems much more reasonable.

The Cons

The last two forms of megativity can easily backfire on you.

Others will automatically discount what you say. Megative statements can be like swearing in that they have shock value at first which quickly wears off the more you use them. You also run the risk that the audience will quickly adjust to your statements and automatically discount what you say. Like a drug, you’ll have to use stronger and stronger language just to achieve the same effect.

Megativity is less effective with certain audiences. For example, I work a lot with engineers and scientists who place a huge premium on data to back up what you say. So, if you are going to use it, be prepared to back it up.

At some point, you may be called upon to put your money or your performance where your mouth is. Dunning-Kruger megativity can get you in a ton of trouble, because your claims will inflate expectations that you will then have to meet—and that’s not likely to end well.

Please spread the word—literally! With your help, megative will be the biggest word of 2017, maybe even 2016 if you act now!!!!!

[1] Cameron Anderson, Sebastien Brion, Don A. Moore, and Jessica A. Kennedy, A Status-Enhancement Account of Overconfidence, 2012.

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Persuasive communication

What Can You Learn About Persuasion from Post-Truth Politicians?

One of the principal pillars of Practical Eloquence is that even though emotional appeals can be hugely powerful, content is still king. In other words, the only way to get your ideas accepted consistently is to be honest and not let your claims get ahead of your facts.

But along comes Donald Trump and seemingly blows that idea right out of the water. As a student of persuasive communication, I’ve been both fascinated and repelled by the 2016 political season, which has led the Oxford Dictionaries to tag “post-truth” as their word of the year. Wikipedia defines post-truth is defined as “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” That’s a nice precise definition, but to be perfectly clear, post-truth, in my book, equates to emotion, exaggeration and even bald-faced lies.

It worked spectacularly for Trump, so will it work for you in business communication—whether in sales or in trying to get your ideas accepted within your organization? What can you learn about persuasion from him and the other post-truth politicians and pundits?

There are two lessons that you should absorb from the success of post-truth politicians. First, it worked because Trump has shown himself to be a master at sensing what is on the minds of his audiences, and tuning his message into perfect resonance with their emotional state. One gets the sense that he is a virtuoso in at least two legs of what Daniel Goleman calls the empathy triad: cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. The third leg is empathic concern, and your guess is as good as mine on that one.

The second lesson that you might be able to apply—if you’re careful with it—what Trump himself calls “truthful hyperbole”. With truthful hyperbole, everything is wonderful or huge or terrific or world-class, and every statement contains multiple!!!!! It works, because even if you don’t objectively believe the description, it’s hard to avoid being swept up into the enthusiasm and confidence of the technique. But you have to be careful to know where to draw the line; what happens when truthful hyperbole becomes mere hyperbole is a topic I will cover in my next post.

Those benefits aside, here are four reasons you would not want to adopt a post-truth approach to your persuasion efforts.

You’re not Trump.  You don’t bring celebrity, money or a large staff of people who can clean up after you if you make a mistake. Plus, it’s part of what people expect from him—it’s a central feature of his ethos. I strongly doubt that you can dominate a room with that level of charisma, and if you try to “fake it ‘til you make it”, see how far that will get you. Never forget that your listeners often have the power to tell you, “you’re fired!”

It’s too early to tell. Post-truth persuasion worked got elected, but will it work in getting things done in the actual job, where details matter and above all measurable results count? He has definitely sold the sizzle, but it remains to be seen whether the actual steak will be any good. Emotions tend to wear off, but truth endures, and facts are stubborn things. That’s one reason that organizations have created decision processes to avoid impulsive decisions.

The decisions that you’re trying to influence are different. Millions of people—probably the vast majority of voters—filtered their information and made their decisions through the lens of their personal ideology or identity. Business decisions are different for the most part. Most people don’t get so personally involved when making a choice between the Acme and the Amalgamated widgets.

The deciders are different. Especially when pitching ideas to senior executives, the people you are trying to influence are generally more sophisticated in their approach to decision-making, at least in the subject matter of what you’re selling. They’ve trained themselves to be more analytic and empirical, and those decision processes mentioned above are also designed specifically to guard against individual bias.

To sum up, there may be a post-truth era in politics, but I strongly doubt that it’s coming to business or interpersonal communication anytime soon. As the announcer reminds you: “Don’t try this at home!”

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Clear thinking - Persuasive communication

At the End of 2016, We Desperately Need to Remember These Two Ideas

Regardless of whether your candidate won or lost, the 2016 political season in the US has seriously undermined two key beliefs that I have long had about persuasive communications. The first is that the truth matters, and the second is that moderation of thought and expression is a virtue. Maybe I’ve taken them for granted because I’ve thought that both of these ideas are obvious, but it’s clear that someone needs to speak out in their defense.

Two of those defenders—whose opinions and approach I greatly respect—are Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, and Peter Wehner,  a columnist for the New York Times. Since they can say it much better than I can, I simply give you these two links, and strongly recommend you read them:  

Bernoff: The Truth Foundation

Wehner: Moderate Is Not a Dirty Word (This is the title of the print edition of the opinion in the NYT; different than the online edition for some reason.)

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