Dear Colleagues:

Sometimes I'm in meetings where people are frustrated that their market research didn't deliver hard, attention-grabbing news. Other times, I've been involved in media interviews where a client gives a minimalist response to a question, which reduces their credibility, triggers additional and even unwanted questions, or lessens their status as an expert source.

Asking the right questions is vital to effective communications. Communicators and leaders need to be able to ask good questions to capture useful information. We need to be able to ask ourselves tough questions in order to prepare for challenging or unexpected questions from others. Only by anticipating and asking questions can we be prepared, and confident that what we say will be meaningful to others.

Read on...
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You Think You Have News. But, Do You?

We cheered in 2009 when Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger made a daring water landing of his disabled US Airways A320 Airbus in frigid NYC waters, saving all 155 passengers and crew. Few, however, knew how investigators later challenged his judgment, until scenes in the film Sully revealed how some at the NTSB were intent on proving that landing at a nearby airport would have been a better and more realistic option.

Throughout grueling hearings, Sully stood by his decision to attempt a water landing. Ultimately, he figured out why the NTSB simulations did not reflect his reality and helped the investigators understand that they'd been asking the wrong questions because they were ignoring the human element.Simulator pilots, it turned out, needed 17 tries to replicate the flight path to successfully touch down on a runway; Sully had one, and under intense pressure he moved calmly and decisively to execute what he believed to be his only viable choice in the moment.

The right questions are outcome-neutral
. In other words, the NTSB could have saved a lot of time and resources and lessened the pilot burden if they investigated without bias. A more beneficial set of questions wouldn't start from preconceived assumptions that the water landing might be wrong. The NTSB team needed to ask themselves and investigators exactly what conditions would have been required for the plane to make it to an airport for landing, and assess if those conditions existed precisely during the last moments of flight.

Asking the right questions is not only crucial in a crisis, but is particularly important in business every day. Erroneous assumptions or not asking the right questions can affect employee morale, stock prices, news media coverage and much more.

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Use Your Questions as a Compass

Are you looking/hoping for a specific response? What will happen if the feedback yields something different?

Asking a question that assumes a particular answer is easy to do when you believe you are right; when you're really only interested in getting people to jump on your bandwagon.

Still, you don't want to waste time and money on a fishing expedition. Be objective and direct, but don't include an answer inherent in the question. When you frame your query and leave room for truthful options, the right set of questions can be a reliable compass to guide you toward your goal.

In PR, we ask probing questions to determine what story or information to convey. Conversely, market researchers start from the end, asking questions that will support a stated agenda and deliver value to a company or brand.

For example, when launching a new product or service, you'll need to take your success-blinders off, as uncomfortable as that may be. Communications pros can help you realistically examine the competitive landscape and the needs of your consumer to illuminate the "new news."
  • How is your product or service an improvement over others out there?
  • Does your target audience have any other choices on the market?
  • What will compel them to pick yours? Is there a learning curve inherent in consumer adoption?
Will their behavior need to change?
Without diving into tough questions your announcement may be shallow and vulnerable to criticism or, worse, may just be ignored.
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Frame Questions to Elicit Useful Answers - and Then Listen

Listening carefully to your intended audience can help you decide which emotional and rational levers to tap. A great tool in a group conversation or interview is to ask clarifying questions to guide your responses and engage others. By asking thoughtful questions, you can develop a keen sense of the needs of your audience and strategize accordingly.

Frame questions in ways that will yield useful answers. Consider [one of my clients'] communications philosophy of "Helping, Not Selling," for instance. Questions are framed to guide consumers to a positive outcome that suits their situation, rather than pushing a product or service.

"Good questions are goal-oriented," says Sathvik Tantry, author of Focus on the Right Questions, Not the Right Answers. Be specific. Narrow down choices. Wide-open questions will only produce off-target, philosophical or confused answers.

Similarly, Irene Leonard in The Art of Effective Questioning cautions against asking "yes" or "no" questions. Frame questions to facilitate discussion and follow-up. Those types of clear questions often begin with "how" or "what". Great questions are designed to find out what the other person knows, so remain quiet and listen. You never know what you'll learn when you ask the right way.

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Giving the Right Answers to the Wrong Questions

There are times when you're on the receiving end of an inquiry that may be built on poor assumptions or demonstrate a lack of understanding. That's when conveying accurate information - despite the nature of the question - is paramount. Here are three tips to help you develop that skill.

1. Prepare two or three essential points
that you want to get across and use facts or anecdotes from your experience to support your position. Recognizing the actual or perceived question and quickly connecting your key messages to your answer can be learned and must be practiced. There is no substitute for preparation.

2. Respond to the question you want to answer, whether it's asked or not. Steer a response to the information you want to share by introducing a subject connected to your message platform. By "bridging" in this way, you may redirect the conversation to the information you wish to convey.

3. Redirecting a difficult or irrelevant question by repeating your strategic message (despite the language of the posed query) is often the best way to get your point across and successfully take control of the conversation. This technique works well in media interviews and in large, town-hall style events.

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Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications, Inc. helps companies build reputations and differentiate in a competitive market through thought leadership, public education, issues management, content strategy, and strategic communications. To find out how ICCC can help you and your company build your reputation contact, call 212-399-0026 or visit
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