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How to get your buyers to tell tales

As a planner, I ask a lot of questions. Asking questions is important, because the alternative is making assumptions. And we know where that can lead you.

Asking a lot of questions also makes you think a lot about how to ask the right questions.

Not the ones that you think will make you look clever (see for example, 80% of conference attendee questions).

Nor the ones that try to trip people up (generally not good for getting a cynical board exec to open up).

And certainly not the ones that will make you look just plain stupid (often caused by not listening to a previous answer).

Instead, it’s about asking the questions that matter - the ones that will actually give you a genuine insight, an angle, an ‘a-ha’ moment.

So it was with great interest that I stumbled across a recent interview with Alex Blumberg (a former producer at This American Life and he of StartUp fame) on the power of the right question.

In it Alex talks about the art of interviewing – and the importance of getting people to open up and tell their story. [Listen to the Podcast (it's part 2) here].

He explains how it’s easy to ask questions and get a stock response that doesn’t really tell you anything - like the yes or no answers that simply confirm or refute what you first thought. But it’s harder to ask the questions that elicit a more honest, emotional response.

Fortunately, he provides some helpful guidance:

Use language that encourages people to tell stories
Quite simply, use words like ‘tell me’…. Such as ‘Tell me about the time you realised you needed to do this’, ‘Tell me how you made the decision to go with these guys’, ‘Tell me who you felt needed to be involved and why’.

Get people to talk through a process
There are often steps that led them from one situation to another – and each step can have its own story. So questions like, ‘What were the steps you took in choosing a new supplier?’, ‘How did it all start?’, and ‘What did you do next?’ can really help to tease out these stories.

Ask how it made them feel
If they’re feeling something and they don’t articulate it, you’ve missed it. So don’t be afraid to explicitly ask questions like, ‘What did you feel when they first presented the solution to you?’ or 'How did it feel once you'd made the decision to go with them?'

Encourage them to give voice to any internal conflict
A lot of emotion is about internal conflict. The right questions help people give voice to that conflict. For instance, ask them to explain what was going through their head at the time, ask them what they felt were the pros and cons – and what, if any, were their big reservations.

It’s surprisingly simple, but can make all the difference – both in helping build a rapport with the interviewee and giving you real insights. The thing is whether you’re persona building, developing case studies, looking for content themes or want to ensure your proposition has a real hook – asking the right questions will go a long way. Go on tell me otherwise.