I’ve been thinking about questions, mostly about asking them.
We were in Nashville two years ago for a long weekend and took Lyfts everywhere we needed to go. Every trip was $6.15, no matter how far we went. Sitting in the backseat I was relaxed and chatty, interested in what was attracting so many different people to town and making this city burst at its seams.
Nashville barely has an accent these days. Or rather, it has many accents. Of all the people we spoke with, most were not Nashvillians, or even from Tennessee. California. Michigan. New Jersey. But not Nashville.
This made me curious. So as soon as we got in a car, I started asking the driver: What brought you here? Was it the music scene? Where can we find good jazz? What restaurants are not to be missed?
Usually, one question was all it took for those drivers to be off and running, telling us about their journey, what they were doing when not driving for Lyft, where the good music was, and how they feel about the city’s explosive growth.
Those conversations never failed to be interesting as everyone’s story was different, although they may have shared similar elements. I marveled that all it took was one basic question—what brought you here—for each of those individuals to share a part of their life story with us.
We had a fantastic time that weekend, in part because of those conversations. Driving to our destination kicked off that day’s adventure, putting us in a great mood and open to whatever was coming next. (Note: One of those conversations led us to a great blues bar, a highlight of the trip).
Management teams aren’t good at asking questions. In business school, we train them to be good at giving answers. —Clayton Christensen
In business, conversation leads to “yes”
Back in the days when I travelled for work, I took a lot of Lyfts, and when I asked a driver how long they had been driving, they had my full attention because I knew a story was coming. The conversation wasn’t always that titillating, but hey, I’m stuck in the backseat. Talking with the driver is almost always more interesting and informative than looking at my phone.
This is because one question leads to another, and another, and before you know it, you’re having a thoughtful conversation that offers bits of treasure for a writer looking for the story, or for a service provider looking for the opportunity.
While I spend most of my time teaching and writing and finding new ways to help people be creative, I still have to sell Story Mode to new clients. The way I do this is the same way I teach other people how to be persuasive: I start a conversation.
It’s easy to do, whether you’re networking, presenting to an audience, going out to dinner with a client (remember that?), or sitting in a driveshare car with someone you don’t know for 15 minutes. You start by asking.
What makes a good question?
Ah, good question. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Sadly, all that talk about multi-tasking is a big lie. Turns out our brains can only process one thing at a time. So if you ask me a question, my brain will drop what it’s doing and begin to answer that question.
“What shoes do you have on today?”
Raise your hand if you just looked down at your feet or wiggled your toes.
Questions, even rhetorical ones, work in a specific way in our brains. We can’t help but answer a question in our heads. By answering what you asked, out loud or silently, I enter into a conversation with you.
So really, it’s that first question you want to craft ahead of time, an open-ended conversation starter. Because once you start talking, the questions will be easy to find.
Of course, we all like to talk about ourselves, so start there. Ask someone what brought them here.
Before you start writing
When was the last time you sat and thought about the questions you needed answered before you wrote that email?
Beth and I use our Story Starter with almost every one of our clients. It’s quick and easy—just six questions you need to ask before you start writing anything. The more preparation and thinking you can do at the very start of a draft, the better your outcome will be. Why? Because if you ask the right questions, the story won’t just be what you need, it will be what your audience needs too.
I once read a trick for novelists from the writer Eileen Pollack (no relation). She suggested writing a note with the central question you are trying to answer, and keeping it handy to help you make the right decision about where to go next.
It’s the questions that should guide us.
For those of us who write at work, the same concept can hold true. Keep a tight focus on your specific goal. But while a novelist doesn’t know exactly who will pick up her book, and she doesn’t necessarily need them to do anything with it, business writers and storytellers need action. We need our readers to act on the information.
This means that the audience is everything. Yes, keep a tight focus on your goal, but keep a tighter focus on your audience and what they need. How do you discover what that need is? Ask the right questions and keep the conversation going.