Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in a recent
Prepare: Chao says, “I prepare so much more than some of my male colleagues, and I know women who are prepared more and we get ridiculed and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh. She’s just preparing so much. She’s such an automaton. Can’t she just like, wing it?’”
This one resonated with me, because it is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career in sales. That’s because I’m not a “natural salesperson” who knows exactly what to say and when, or who has the confidence to just wing it. But when it comes harder for you, you get a little paranoid and plan a bit—actually, a lot—harder. That’s how I’ve won deals against competitors who were natural salespeople, and who were overconfident and therefore unprepared. So if you think you’re too good to plan, I hope to compete against you.
Don’t be afraid of mistakes: Chao says that coming from an Asian culture initially made her very worried about making a mistake, because Asians pay close attention to everything being said, and every word counts. But that doesn’t happen in American culture, because a) we’re just not good listeners, so we are less likely to catch small errors or remember everything that was said, and b) we’re much more forgiving when we do.
This point is the corrective to overpreparation. Plan as carefully as you can, and then relax. Mr. Murphy will inevitably show up and something will go off track. If you make a mistake, the crucial point is to immediately acknowledge it, own it, and move on. Especially in speeches and presentations, I’ve found that people will remember how you recover from an error far more than the error itself.
Expertise empowers the person: I love this quote! When asked what made her successful in a very male environment, Chao responded, “because I knew what I was doing.” She always had “incredible subject area expertise.”
Many of my coaching clients ask for techniques to deal with nerves or increase the confidence that they display. Of course, there are numerous techniques, and I do share those, but not without first asking them why they have been chosen to speak to this particular audience on this particular occasion. The answer is always that they know more about this particular topic than anyone else in the room—otherwise someone else would have been asked to speak. It doesn’t matter whether you are a woman, a minority, or the youngest person in the room; if you have something useful to say, that no one else knows, you will always have power.
The title of this post is a bit disingenuous, because these three points actually have nothing to do with gender. They have everything to do with the fact that the best people to learn from are those who have to overcome the greatest obstacles to achieve success. Their initial lack of confidence is precisely what drives them to do the things that make them more confident and more successful.
 Although Sean Spicer may disagree on this point!
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
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
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!”
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.)