The Art of Asking the Right Questions

A couple of weeks ago, when I was driving a bit too fast, I came upon two different police department signs. The first told me what I already knew — that driving too fast would earn me a fine. No surprises there! But the second sign made me think twice. It didn’t offer any threats or make any warnings. It simply asked me one question: “How fast are you driving now?” In response, I glanced at the speedometer and noticed I was, in fact, driving far too fast. Evidently, my attention had been monopolized by the music I was playing, the talk I was having with my buddy, and the good weather.

I never really thought much of this until I was at Heathrow Airport recently. I noticed three different pieces of signage on a telephone booth. One was from British Telecom and two were from AT&T. The British Telecom sign read, “Use British Telecom next time you’re calling.” Not the most imaginative message I’ve seen to date. In contrast, the two messages from AT&T made me think. They asked, “Have you called home today?” and “Have you called your office today?”

My reception of these messages mirrored my experience with the policing signs. While one message met the impenetrability of my personal advertising filter, others made me stop and think. Both times, I encountered a short message that suggested some action on my part, and both times these messages were positioned near a point at which I could act on those suggestions.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any statistics or reference books with documentary backup for the assertion I’m about to make. But my personal experience certainly tells me a message that addresses the reader directly, by asking a question or making an actionable suggestion, is more capable of eliciting a positive response than the old-fashioned imperatives — “Buy me!” and “Hear me!” If this is correct, it offers a key insight to Internet marketers whose sites often depend on some sort of instant consumer action.

Often we attempt to elicit action by presenting statements like, “Fill out this form to be covered for damage on your home contents.” This example would hardly persuade you to do any such thing. Your mental advertising filter would flick it off effortlessly. The statement’s a hackneyed reflection of a non-consumer-centered approach, and we’re all immune to such monologue. But consider something like, “Are you covered if your house burns down? If not, fill out this form.” At least this example might make you think, even for a second or two. It might prompt you to think about your situation, might even prompt you to act.

The trick with this technique is to be prudent. Select your message locations carefully. Put your brand’s voice in places where the suggestions it makes can be acted upon. And turn your statements into questions. Address your reader in a timely and relevant fashion. This way your brand’s voice isn’t muffled by cliché and clutter. It should make your customers think and prompt them into a new behavior.

We live in a world in which people are losing the skill of being good and active listeners. We’re accustomed to receiving information passively through monologues that issue from TV and radio. These media channels can only offer one-way communication. They talk at the consumer and are incapable of listening. Unfortunately, most potentially interactive media — or what I call dialogue-based media — have adopted the habit of monologue. Internet practitioners seem to have forgotten their big advantage is in interactivity. The medium has the potential to listen and respond relevantly and personally.

The art of good communication lies in asking the right questions. Your first step toward proficiency in the art is to identify the questions. Then expose them advantageously on your site, in your advertising, and in your consumer dialogue.

When you’ve reached this stage, your next challenge will be to introduce listening behaviors to the rest of your site. Listening? That’s what comes after you ask the right question: You respond to the answer you receive. But that’s another story.

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