Comedians make a good portion of their income by asking questions. After all, questions can make people laugh. For example, I’ve heard comedians ask:
• If swimming is so good for your figure, how do you explain whales?
• Is it just me….or do buffalo wings really taste like chicken?
• I went to San Francisco. I found someone’s heart. Now What?
• Protons have mass? I didn’t even know they were Catholic.
• What is a ‘free’ gift? Aren’t all gifts free?
• How can there be self-help ‘groups’?
• If the cops arrest a mime, do they tell her she has the right to remain silent?
So yes, comedians make a good portion of their income by asking questions. But questions aren’t silly. They are one of the most important communication skills and one of the most important success skills you’ll ever come across. And yet very few people realize HOW important they are.
It was a lesson Tip O’Neil, the former Speaker of the House, had to learn in his first campaign. The lesson came from Mrs. O’Brien, his high school speech and drama teacher. The night before the election she said, “Tom, I’m going to vote for you tomorrow even though you didn’t ask me to do it.”
O’Neil was shocked. “Why, Mrs. O’Brien,” he said, “I’ve lived across the street from you for 18 years. I cut your grass in the summer. I shoveled your walk in the winter. I didn’t think I had to ask for your vote.”
Mrs. O’Brien replied, “Tom, let me tell you something. People like to be asked.”
How true! People don’t want to be told, and people don’t want to be taken for granted. They want to be asked. Asking is good for your relationships.
But ASKING FOR WHAT YOU WANT is also good for you and your business. If you ask for what you want, in the right way, you’re going to get a lot more of what you want. Here’s HOW you do it.
1. Be direct.
Ask real questions – not statements or manipulations disguised as questions. Martin Smith learned that. When he was driving home one night, a patrolman pulled him over for speeding. As the patrolman returned his driver’s license, Smith hoping for leniency, sheepishly asked, “Officer, did you notice that yesterday was my birthday?”
“As a matter of fact, I did, because that’s when your license expired.” replied the officer. Don’t use questions to manipulate someone because they often backfire, like they did for Smith. And don’t hint. When you announce a staff meeting for 8 a.m. and people show up late, don’t hint around and say something like, “It sure would be nice if we could start on time.” That’s not asking….that’s begging.
A direct question would ask, “Marilyn, will you please be here at 8 a.m. sharp for our Tuesday meeting?” If she says “yes” back to you, follow-through increases about ten fold. I’m not saying you have to be abrasive, abusive, or aggressive. Just be direct when you ask for what you want.
2. Be specific.
Avoid any ambiguity. In fact, if you ask vague questions, I can almost guarantee that you won’t get the results you want. For example, if you ask a coworker to give you a certain report “later this week,” what does that mean? “Later this week” could have a dozen different interpretations. But if you ask, “James, will you please give me our second quarter sales figures this Friday at 2:00 p.m.?” chances are that’s what you’ll get.
The same principle applies to the questions you ask at home. If you ask your kid to “clean up his room,” you may not be too happy with the results. “Clean” to you and “clean” to him mean different things. So be specific. Say, “Jason, I want you to put your toys in the toy box, make your bed, and hang up your clothes before dinner. Will you do that?” With a clear statement and specific request for commitment, you’ve got a better chance of getting what you want.
3. Be persistent.
Richard Bach, the author of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” asked 51 publishers to print his book before he got a “yes.” If he had stopped asking at number 50, we wouldn’t have his classic book, the movie, or the music by Neil Diamond.
Colonel Harlan Sanders traveled for two years, crisscrossing the country, asking 1011 restaurant owners to partner with him and his secret chicken recipe. They all said “no,” but number 1012 said “yes.” If the Colonel had stopped asking, he would have been a poor 65-year-old without a dime to his name.
Don’t stoop to being some whiny, spineless, weak-kneed communicator. If you really want something, you may have to keep on asking. Even the Bible talks about the woman who kept asking the unscrupulous judge for justice until he finally gave it to her.
Mind you, I’m suggesting you keep on ASKING for what you want. I’m NOT suggesting you keep on nagging or pestering someone until he or she gives in. There is a difference. The first one is respectful, assertive communication while the later one is disrespectful, aggressive behavior.
4. Be genuine.
If you don’t really want to know the answer to your question, then don’t ask it. For questions to work well, you’ve got to be genuine in your questioning.
For example, you’ve probably had someone ask you, “How’s it going?” thinking he really wanted to know, so you started to share a recent success. And then, all of a sudden, in mid-scenario, he jumps in and blows you off by saying, “You think that’s something? Let me tell you about….” He’s then off and running, right over your deflated ego, and you wish he’d kept on walking when he first spotted you. You had hoped he might have said something like, “That’s wonderful. Tell me more.” Instead you got treated to a litany of his opinions and achievements.
You know how it feels when you get asked a fake question, so don’t you dare do it to anybody else if you expect to use the power of questions for good outcomes. As Jim Meisenheimer, one of the country’s leading sales trainers, advises, “Ask the other person to talk about himself….and then LISTEN.”
In particular, he says, “Entrepreneurs and professional salespeople can increase their business significantly by asking intelligent, provoking, probing, and open ended questions – questions that get people talking about themselves.” And that, Meisenheimer concludes, “is much more important than talking about yourself.”
Practice saying, “Enough about me. I want to hear about you. How’s your business? Wife? Health? Church?” Stifle the urge to interrupt; just listen. Listen with your ears, your eyes, your mind, and your spirit. Try to understand the feelings behind their words.
Of course, not all prospects will say “yes” when you ask them to buy. But one of the keys to getting a qualified prospect to say “yes” instead of “no” depends less on what you say and more on what you ask….genuinely so.
5. Be positive.
In other words, expect the other person to say “yes.”
As strange as it sounds, people sense your state of mind. If you ask someone to do something, thinking they’re going to say “no,” they probably will say “no.” But if you approach someone with confidence and optimism, expecting them to cooperate with you, you’ll be delightfully surprised at how many more “yes” responses you’re going to get.
6. Be firm.
If you preface your request with such comments as “I know you’re really busy. I hate to bother you,” the other person may feel like, “That’s right. Leave me alone.” Just ask, but ask firmly.
An old Danish proverb says, “Better to ASK twice than lose your way once.” In other words, don’t be afraid to ask, and ask again if necessary. That’s far better than losing your way or not getting your way.
7. Be polite.
Even though you should be firm in the way you ask, you still need to be polite and kind. In most cultures, people have been taught to respond more favorably when they hear the words “please” and “thank you.” So don’t forget to show the utmost respect in your tone of voice and the words you choose.
In one whimsical story, a little boy knew about the power of politeness. He used the pay phone in the local hardware store to call the home of the wealthiest person in town living in the best house in town. He asked if she needed a gardener as he would like to apply for the job. The rich lady answered no, that she already had a gardener.
Then the boy asked, “Please, if you don’t mind me asking, how is your gardener working out?” The lady said, “Oh, he’s wonderful. He’s hard working and always on time. He cuts the grass and weeds the gardens so well that everything looks great.” The boy replied, “Thank you, ma’am,” wished her well, and said good-bye.
Overhearing the whole conversation, the store clerk told the boy he was sorry he didn’t get the job. The boy answered, “No problem, sir. I already have that job. I was checking on how well I was doing.” He was polite in his questioning and he got the information he needed.
8. Ask for commitment instead of permission.
Art Sobczak writes about this in his book, “Smart Calling.” Get some kind of honorable, professional commitment rather than some kind of wimpy permission.
For example, if you were in sales and talking to a prospect over the phone, you’re asking for permission if you ask, “May I send you some information?” It would be far better to ask for some kind of commitment, such as, “If I send you some information, will you look it over and we can talk again in a few weeks?”
If the other person is too busy right now or their budget monies are coming in next month, “Will we be able to talk more about this when I call back in a few weeks?” is asking for commitment. It implies that they need to be ready for that conversation when you do call back. And then you do have a reason to send them material.
On the other hand, “May I call you in a few weeks?” is simply asking for permission.
As Sobczak has learned in two decades of research, “People like to honor their commitments. If the call ends and they have only given you permission, why would they care what happens next? The ball is not in their court. But, if the call ends and they’ve committed to doing something, odds are good they’ll do it. And, if asking for that commitment doesn’t feel right, then it probably means you’ve got more work to do in building interest.”
Make it your goal on every call or every conversation where you need something. Ask “Will you?” questions instead of “May I?” questions. Time is flying by. Don’t waste it by waiting for the good things to come into your life. Go out and get them by asking for them. The better your asking, the better the response you’ll get.