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, 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?
 A few good examples: SPIN Selling and Question Based Selling for Sales; Leading with Questions, for leadership;
Humble Inquiry, for psychology.
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!”
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.)
Your time is more valuable than mine, so I’ll get right to the point: I recommend that you read Writing Without Bullshit, by Josh Bernoff.
Because so much of your business communication consists of words on screen or paper, you have to be able to write lean if you want to be a complete lean communicator. That’s because even though lean thinking applies equally to spoken or written communication, writing poses its own challenges that require specialized approaches.
How is writing different?
The principal difference between writing and speaking is that written communication is asynchronous, which is a fancy way of saying that production and delivery of the message don’t happen at the same time. That can help or hurt your communication.
It can help because usually the first time you say something, you don’t say it as well as you could. Writing is like a ballistic missile: you can choose your target and take pains to aim properly. You can take time to think carefully about what you want to say and choose your words, and you can edit and polish as much as you want. On the receiving end, the reader can absorb your message at their own pace, re-reading if they have trouble understanding or skimming over parts that they already know.
It can hurt because if you’re off target, you don’t have the feedback loop of real-time dialogue which allows you to adjust, clarify and take in the listener’s viewpoint to improve your original message. Plus, if you write the way you were taught in school, you’re almost guaranteed to produce crappy writing. That’s because the sole purpose of writing in school is to make yourself look smart, not to help the reader improve their outcomes.
That presents a great opportunity for a good writer. Since most business writing is bland, boring or baffling, you can easily stand out and make a reputation for yourself by just being a little better than everyone else. Unfortunately most people throw away the advantages of writing by not taking the time to carefully craft and edit their message, so the bulk of business writing is full of waste, or to use the more colorful term: bullshit.
Fortunately, Writing Without Bullshit supplies the antidote. If I were to write a book on Lean Communication as applied to writing (and if I were a better writer), this is the book I would have tried to write.
So much of what Bernoff writes aligns closely with LC principles. That’s no coincidence, because a lot of my LC ideas have come from studying and trying to apply ideas from books on writing. Lean keys such as outside-in thinking, Bottom Line Up Front, and Transparent Structure all apply as well to writing as they do to speaking. But this book brings a writer’s perspective to the principles.
Let’s just focus on one his Iron Imperative, which you see reflected in the picture above this post:
Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.
That’s Outside-In Thinking, applied to writing. It’s powerful because it focuses your mind on adding value to the reader without wasting their time. If you stick a post-it note with it on the top of your computer screen, it will remind you to take the time and make the effort so that your reader won’t have to, and it will hugely improve your writing.
Actually, that’s not exactly true. You will throw away the advantage you have as a writer if you don’t take the time and make the effort to carefully craft your message and choose your words. That’s why the second half of the book is so valuable. It’s about the project management aspect of writing, and it will teach you how to be productively paranoid, find your flow, and edit your own and others’ work effectively.
The nice thing about becoming a better writer is that it will make you a better speaker as well. So if you truly want to add value with less waste no matter what medium you use, you must learn to get rid of the bullshit. You—and the rest of the world—will be better off.
 I would be guilty of peddling bullshit myself if I didn’t disclose some disagreements I have with Bernoff. While I agree with his Iron Imperative, I don’t believe it says enough about understanding the reader’s perspective and their needs. If the purpose of business writing is to change the reader, as he says, then one should think more deeply about the WIFM when writing.