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30.8.16

The secret to asking the right questions: Follow the story

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Do you remember a TV character called Columbo? He was a detective with one squinty eye who was a master of questioning his suspects. He was pretty awkward himself. He had a limping gait and kept his head cocked on one side. He wore a crumpled overcoat. His targets often underestimated him. And that is the way he liked it. He’d ask them questions that seemed stupid. Then, just as they were leaving the interview, he’d say, ‘Just one more thing.” And he’d fix them with his squinty gaze and ask a killer question that showed up everything they were saying as a lie. I loved Columbo.

The secret of asking important questions

Columbo’s questions always got to the truth. And his technique was simple. He’d follow the story. One simple question led to the next and the next. But the liars always had a gap in their story. There was a lesson in there for me. As a journalist, I’d often step into my Columbo persona. At first, it happened because I was inexperienced and I really didn’t know what I was doing. As I bumbled along, I noticed what happened: I often got an unexpected truth. I’m not talking about catching my subjects out in a lie (although I did sometimes). But following the story led my subjects to speak deeply, to reveal more about their actions and motivations.

Thought leaders are deep thinkers. The ability to follow the story is the fastest, surest and most fascinating way to discover the important questions and deepen our own ideas, and those of our clients.

A new way to read the paper

I love the idea of ‘power followers’, those people within organisations and within society who stand up to ask the awkward questions. They are not leaders, and they don’t want to be leaders. Journalists are one of the clearest example of this role in our society. Think of Waleed Aly, one of our most influential journalists and a master of asking the awkward question. But Aly has repeatedly ruled out a political career. His role is an analyst and commentator, he says.

I’m horrified when I hear thought leaders say that they don’t read the paper or watch the news. Yes, I understand that the media is just one part of the story, and often a sad part. But our job is to ask important questions about the real world. How can we do that if we keep our heads in the sand about what is really going on? It’s a risk, too. I read a newsletter recently that quoted the words of a chief executive whose company had gone broke. (That is ok, as long as you let your readers know.)

Here’s a new way to read the paper. Look at every story you read through the lens of your crusade to change the way things are to something better. For example, both Brexit and Eddie McGuire’s joke about drowning Fairfax journalist, Carolyn Wilson, sparked blogs about power followership for me. Use the news to power your thinking, to stay relevant, and to provide examples of how your expertise can be used to change thinking.

What is your ‘round’?

Of course you read everything about your area of specialisation: leadership, marketing, technology and so on. But it’s not enough to stay abreast of your area of expertise, you need to follow the story of your market. If you specialise in training financial services professionals, it’s important to follow the story of financial service professionals. If you mentor the chief executives of ASX-listed companies, follow their story.

Stories are not static. They are continuous. This is what keeps journalists busy. Many journalists concentrate on a particular area, such as politics, education, or business, for example. This is only possible because the story never stops. That specialisation is called a round, a beat or a patch in traditional media. What is your round?

When you finish your book, the curtain does not fall. Even if the main protagonists disappear at the end of our story, it’s not long before new ones arise. Your book or blog is a story captured at a moment in time. For impact and depth, stay focused on the story as it unfolds.

PS: Want more. Read ‘Is wibble wobble a desirable quality in your book design?

 

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