Need More Information? Stop Talking

February 4, 2010

An executive, who is a coaching client, and I were discussing the use of questions to uncover what’s behind a person’s position on a particular issue. We discussed a number of open-ended questions, like the following:

  1. Can you give me a bit of the history behind this process? What problem did it originally solve? Who was on the team of developers?
  2. Here are the facts as I see them. What else do I need to look at? What am I missing? 
  3. In an ideal world, we would proceed in the following way…. What concerns does this raise for your department?

The executive expressed some disappointment: “I was hoping you’d tell me some questions to get behind these issues.” Later, I realized the opportunity I had missed. Nothing was wrong with the list of questions. The secret the executive was hoping to find lies in the way we handle the responses we get to the questions.

For example, if a person’s answer to a well-formulated question still leaves us murky about what she really thinks, we can respond with a simple statement: “Please tell me more.” The secret, then, is to stop talking. Assuming you are not asking for private or embarrassing information, a pause is a powerful tool. In western culture, if one person is silent after a question is answered, someone else will rush in to fill the vacuum. In the process, that person will often provide more information in relation to the question—exactly what the silent person is looking for.

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Don’t Make this Stupid Mistake #15: Expect People to be Supremely Interested in Your Story

February 4, 2010

Here’s the situation:  It was a big networking event, and the speaker was introduced as a networking guru, brought in from another state.  The speaker began her presentation with a funny story about how someone bored her by talking only about himself over a get-to-know-you lunch.  The speaker then announced that she would share five important networking tips with the audience.

Here’s the stupid mistake:  “But,” the speaker said, “first I have to tell you more about my personal story.”  The audience members let out a collective sigh.  Fifteen minutes later, the audience still  hadn’t heard the five tips, and people began to discreetly leave the room.  I confess that I was one of the ones who left.  A person I met just outside the room gave me an unsolicited comment.  “I don’t care a bit about her personal story!”  The speaker had broken her own rule about considering herself a bit too interesting!

Here’s the solution:  Organize your comments, spoken or written,  by beginning with whatever is most relevant to the receiver.  Give the punchline first or as soon as you possibly can.  The temptation to present a message chronologically is a trap.  People don’t care how you came to know something.  They just want you to tell them what you know and why it is important.

 Yes, your personal story can add some interest and context–when it is kept to the minimum.   Avoid leading up to your key points–start with them!   Once you’ve established the message, you can add examples, illustrations, or humor.  This is the way to keep your audience members “present” and engaged.