Why, you might wonder, is it important in business to ask good questions? Here’s why. If you don’t, you won’t be able to understand a client’s needs, an employee’s difficulties, or a boss’s demands. Asking good questions also gets people to open their minds and think more creatively.
You might remember teachers who asked a lot of questions, mostly irrelevant, wandering off topic, never able to get to the essence of the lesson. At the end of the class very little progress was made, and you were left wondering what you had learned that day.
A while back, a well-respected businesswoman who was a mentor of mine shared the following advice — if you want to be successful in business, you have to be like a skilled teacher who is able to ask the right questions. I also learned from her that, although asking good questions might seem really easy, it isn’t. It can take several years of practice before you are good at asking the right questions.
Asking good questions is not an abstract idea though. There are concrete steps you can take to hone your skill. The helpful thing is, most people like to talk about themselves and the work they do. So if you learn how to ask good questions, you’ll find that you are able to gain critical insights that are key to doing business.
The Language Lab’s Guide to Asking Good Questions
1. Focus: Decide in advance what you hope to achieve with your questions. Focusing will help you eliminate unnecessary questions.
2. Prepare: Write out the questions you want to ask, in advance. Make sure every question relates to the idea/topic on which you are focusing. Put these questions in a logical sequence. Even if you end up deviating at times from your question list, it will give you a road map to follow.
3. Practice: Rehearse by saying the questions out loud, to yourself. You’ll find that in the actual interview situation you will barely have to refer to your notes.
4. Ask open-ended questions: Avoid questions that can be answered by “yes” or “no.” To do this, ask questions beginning with the “five Ws”: Who, what, when, where, why (and one “H,” how). For example, instead of asking, “Do you feel the project was a success?” ask, “What is it about the project that worked?”
5. Be direct: Ask only one question at a time. Otherwise, you run the risk of causing confusion or getting a partial response. For example, instead of asking, “Why was the project a success and what didn’t work and how do you think you will apply the lessons you learned to future projects?” ask, “Why was the project a success?” “What didn’t work?” “How do you think you will apply the lessons you learned to future projects?”
6. Ask empowering questions: As I said earlier, most people like to talk about themselves and the work that they do. So ask questions that allow them to reflect on their own experience and share it with you. For example, “Based on your experience, what are your recommendations?”
7. Ask for clarification: If you don’t understand a response, ask a follow up probing question. For example, “Can you tell me more about that?”
There is one other point I want to make about asking good questions that isn’t about the kind of questions you ask. In fact, it’s not about speaking at all, just the opposite — it’s about listening. Being a good listener means that you will be able to ask questions that deviate from your plan, when needed. Besides, people open up to good listeners. And when they open up, they give you all the answers you want — and more.
What are your tips for asking good questions? Contact me, Sandra Folk, at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know.
The English language can be confusing, partly because the rules are changing as business writing becomes less formal. No doubt, my grammar teacher would be upset that so many of her former students dangle their prepositions or fragment their sentences.
Mrs. Cardwell also did not anticipate how our reliance on spell check and auto correct would create a whole new breed of mistakes.
Although the green highlighting in Word and other grammar programs can help with some issues, they can’t replace your need to understand which rules count.
In my 30 years of business writing and editing, I keep seeing the same flubs. They can make you look unprofessional and result in misunderstandings. So pay special attention to my top three grammar, spelling and punctuation gaffes.
The most common mistake is to confuse pronoun possessives with contractions, most commonly, “its” and “it’s” or “your” and “you’re.” Well-intentioned people remember Mrs. Cardwell’s rule about possessives using apostrophes, but forget about the exception with pronouns. They both may sound the same, but their meanings and spellings are quite distinct. There’s more in my post about aiming at the biggest, easiest grammar targets.
Many people mix up words that sound almost the same as each other, but have different meanings and spellings. Take “except” and “accept” or “compliment” and “complement.” Here’s a list of commonly confused sound-alikes.
- You are less likely to make a mistake or look unprofessional if you use fewer apostrophes, semi-colons, colons and exclamation points. Many people want to slide an apostrophe into plural numbers, as in “hits of the 80s.” But if the apostrophe may be unnecessary or wrong, you want to avoid this much-abused mark.
Similarly, don’t throw in colons, semi-colons or exclamation points--unless you have a very good reason. Excessive or incorrect punctuation can make you look like an amateur. Punctuation marks are road signs to direct, not perplex, your readers.
I could go on about people who write “myself” when they mean “me,” or “that” when “which” or “who” would be clearer. I could explain how to avoid sexist language without sounding awkward. You can learn more through my blog Sticky Communication or book and online writing course, called Write Like You Talk Only Better.
Because people can best remember three tips, let’s focus on these common gaffes.
- Using apostrophes in pronoun possessives, such as “it’s,” which actually means “it is.”
- Confusing words that sound the same but have different meanings and spelling, as in “border” and “boarder.”
- Excessive or incorrect fancy punctuation marks.
As Kyle Wiens wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing.”
When they are writing, the people who make fewer mistakes look smart and professional. Isn’t that the impression you want to leave?
The Language Lab Guest Blogger: Based on her long and broad experience and MA in journalism, Barb Sawyers advises business people how to write more effectively, through her blog, book and online business writing course. She also provides individual business writing coaching.
Image courtesy of david.orban from Flickr.
Building Better Communication Through Actionable Books
Strong teams are built on trust and a deep understanding of other’s values, aspirations and motivation, supported by a mutual appreciation of each other. But how can hard working professionals with little time come to understand and develop that trust and appreciation that's so important to their long term success? How does a team take time to connect? Most of us aren’t ready to sit in a circle, sing kumbaya, and share our feelings.
At Actionable Books, we've been developing the concept of Collaborative Communication which offers a highly effective method of fast-tracking cultural development and team trust growth.
Collaborative Communication, as a team development methodology, is about getting all members of a team (including its manager) to learn a new concept together. As a collaborative unit, the team works to understand what a concept, process, or best practice means and how it might apply to its unique circumstances. At ActionableBooks.com, we've created a tool called Actionable Workshops that provides busy team leaders with access to forty-four pre-packaged modules that make it easy for these conversations to come to life in a team’s office. Here's an example of how it might play out:
Let's say the manager wants to talk about time management. So she grabs a workshop inspired by The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by the late Stephen Covey. Over the course of the first 20 minutes of an hour long session, the manager would explain a few concepts from the book, making sure that everyone understands them clearly (We call this "tactical learning."). Then, during the remaining 40 minutes of the session, the team (including the manager) works through exercises that help them figure out how to apply those time management concepts to their own lives and business. Those 40 minutes become a catalyst for deeper thinking, planning and - most importantly - conversation.
Team members walk away from each workshop session with practical knowledge that they can each apply to their professional lives, as well as a deeper understanding of the people around them. When run on a frequent basis (Every 4-6 weeks has proven to provide maximum impact.), these sessions act as an anchoring point for team growth.
The obvious benefit of this approach is that the team learns something new every month, without having to read an entire book. The perhaps not-so-obvious benefit - one that far outweighs the tactical learning - is that, for an hour a month, the team gets to communicate with each other, discuss their professional life without referring to immediate issues, fires that need to be put out, or specific client cases. More importantly, the conversation is not a manager vs team mentality that many employee performance reviews take. Instead, the manager and her team are collaborating, working through the concept together; discussing the potential application to the business and to the team. Working together to apply an idea, the team connects with something deeper, i.e. issues, feelings and aspirations that are lurking just below the surface.
We're so busy in our lives, flying from fire to fire, that we rarely take time to reflect on what's important to us in the long term. Even more rarely do we engage in conversation like this with our peers. Over the last four years at Actionable Books, we've found that teams who do have these types of conversations, on a regular basis, consistently realize higher productivity, lower turnover and a general increase in morale. It makes sense, doesn't it? If you could come to work knowing that your colleagues understand and respect you, and that you all share a desire to see each other succeed, wouldn't you be willing to work harder? Wouldn't you think twice before moving to another company?
People want to be engaged in their work. They want to feel that what they do matters and that they have the support of the people around them in pursuing their own aspirations. As a leader, you have the ability - and the obligation - to create an environment that supports those desires. And you can use Actionable Books to help you achieve these goals.
The Language Lab Guest Blogger: Chris Taylor is the Founder and President of ActionableBooks.com; providing high performing leaders with tools to quickly and inexpensively develop themselves, their teams and their work relationships. To learn more and for a free trial of Actionable Workshops visit www.actionablebooks.com/workshops.
The recent tempest in a pasta pot that erupted after the owner of a Montreal restaurant was told by the “language police” to translate into French the word “pasta” on his menu to comply with French language requirements in Quebec got me thinking about the language offences committed by people in their business communication. In spite of the absurdity of this “Pastagate” incident, as pointed out by French language journalists, maybe we do need a language police force to keep in check and improve business communication skills.
If you ever had doubts about the power of language and the impact of your words, take a look at the amount of time wasted and the profits lost due to poorly written emails, reports and so on. Research shows that the 58% of Canadian workers who spend two to four hours per workday reading written communication, believe the following to be the costs of poor writing in those communications:
• 70 % identified loss in productivity
• 85% identified wasted time
• 63% described errors
Estimates suggest that writing deficiencies cost companies $3.1 billion annually. That’s a lot of money! So you might want to consider avoiding going to ‘language jail’ and improve your own business communication. After all, if someone reads a poorly written email or report that you or your company has generated, it will have a lasting impact on the perception of your work, on productivity and on profit. So here are three tips to help you.
How to avoid the business “language police”
1. Practice these quick steps to help you write effectively:
-Plan first what you want to write, i.e. determine your goal/objective for the communication
-Know your audience; then write specifically for that audience
-Edit, edit some more and proofread carefully for errors
-Have someone you trust read your work before sending it out, especially if it contains sensitive information
2. Explore the Language Lab’s blog archives for a wealth of tips on how to write effectively:
3. Take an online business communication course; we’re here to help you clarify your business communication needs and to improve upon them.
For more information about the Language Lab’s online learning courses, contact email@example.com.
A friend recently shared a great Bob Newhart video clip, from a while ago, where Bob plays a psychiatrist who is seeing a new patient about her irrational fears. The psychiatrist’s advice to her was simple: “Stop it!” When she asked him to explain what he meant, he became further exasperated. Ultimately, he told her that her fear was stupid, and she needed to just “Stop it!” (To view this video just Google “Bob Newhart Stop It video”)
I would say the same thing to any sales professional or business owner who still uses cold-calling or cold contacting with prospective clients. “Stop it!” And I say this with confidence, knowing there are good reasons not to do it. There are even more compelling reasons to take a smarter and more effective approach to your business communication.
Here are some reasons, using any form of communication, to stop reaching out to cold prospects who haven’t asked you to contact them:
- Most will ignore you. Whether it’s a phone call, direct mail, text message or e-mail message, they don’t want uninvited solicitations. All those people who you think are ignoring you really are. Actually, they’re developing negative feelings toward you. Some are even blogging about you and expressing their feelings about you!
- In many cases you’re violating CAN-SPAM or Do Not Call laws (see Papa John’s Pizza class action suit). Doing this might result in being fined, receiving bad PR, and losing valuable business relationships.
- Using this approach for communicating with potential clients is demoralizing for your sales people. As someone who has had a lot of experience cold calling in the pre-Internet dark ages, I can attest to the thick skin and short memory you need to have in order to keep dialing in the face of unrelenting rejection.
So what should you do in order to replace all the cold prospecting your team has been doing for years? Start by accepting that potential buyers are now in control of the process. Recent research says 90% or more of buyers who make “considered purchases” (something that requires careful consideration) begin the process by searching the Internet. And 92% of those people use Google. So if you sell a product or service that people need time to think about, your #1 source of warm leads should be your website. Knowing this, plan your communications accordingly.
Here are some tips to help you:
- Learn the words and phrases your best prospects use to search the Internet when they’re looking for a business like yours. Begin by better understanding how they express their most important unresolved business problems
- Optimize your websites, social media profiles, and PR releases using the keywords you identifie
- Begin blogging using an editorial plan designed around your prospects’ most important questions regarding the services or products you sell. Focus on their pain points
- Create a content plan for publishing and promoting advanced content to offer to interested website visitors.
- Use social media to distribute and promote your content to the right audiences
- Use a marketing automation product such as HubSpot, Marketo, InfusionSoft to manage and nurture the leads you attract
- Qualify and score leads so your sales people only see the cream, ideally only when prospects have demonstrated that they’re ready to consider buying.
Use these tips to carefully plan your communication, and I guarantee, a year from now, you’ll be wondering why you didn’t do so earlier. And it’s your competitors who will be scrambling to catch up; unless of course you hesitated and they got there first.
The Language Lab guest blogger: Greg Linnemanstons is the president and principal of the Weidert Group, an organization that provides all forms of marketing communication, e.g. branding, radio and television advertising, email marketing; public relations, social media; web design and development and more. You can follow Greg on Twitter, on LinkedIn, and at www.weidert.com.
- How to Get the Answers You Want: Ask Good Questions
- Three Gaffes to Watch Out for If You Want to Look Professional
- Effective Communication Skills: Successful Phone Meetings
- Building Better Communication Through Actionable Books