The Smartest Thing You Could Say

June 2, 2009 · 31 comments

thinker1Let’s be honest. We all want to leave a meeting knowing that we said something smart and added value to the conversation. It feels great when we have answers. Here’s the thing I find interesting, though. Often the best thing uttered in a meeting isn’t anything said at all, but something asked.

The right question can change your strategy, shed different light on a problem, create new opportunities and empower people to challenge the status quo with new ideas. Sure, asking a question may mean you don’t know the answer offhand. But you get credit for asking the question that changed the conversation. And that feels great, too.

Arik Hanson noted on a post here a few weeks ago that he believes one of the biggest mistakes PR pros make every day is that we’re so set on telling clients what we think (read “having the answers”), that we forget to listen.

Don’t listen with the intention of responding. Listen with the intention of understanding. Doing that will lead you to smart answers and even smarter questions.

Have you noticed the power of asking the right question? What did it do for the conversation?

*Image by Esparta Palma.

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That Had to Hurt « Overcommunicated
July 23, 2009 at 6:53 pm

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tom O'Keefe June 2, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Great point, David.

Asking questions forces us to think in different ways, helps us to look at things in a different light, and creates valuable learning opportunities. I can think of many occasions where a teacher or professor or superior simply asked a question to expand others’ thinking and discussion flew from there.

Thanks for an insightful post,



2 RockstarJen June 3, 2009 at 9:31 am

Often times, the question is one everyone was afraid to ask or hadn’t considered. And you know you’ve asked a good one when the answer isn’t ready available. :)



3 iGoMogul June 3, 2009 at 2:50 pm

And, gathering the courage to ask that question more often than not will gain the respect of your peers~even if they don’t know the answer. :)

Sara @ iGoMogul


4 David June 3, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Agreed. I think one reason people don’t ask more questions is because they’re afraid everyone else knows the answer. Many times they don’t. Even if they do, now you have clarification, which will help you deliver better results.


5 Lauren Fernandez June 3, 2009 at 9:37 am

I find that many times when I was in agency work that I was intimidated to ask questions – even though I had fully understood it. Sometimes entry level feel they don’t have enough weight to do so – and this is a huge gap that many companies are trying to overcome.

To better yourself though, you have to listen and understand first – then ask questions when relevant.

Great reminder and post, D.


6 Chuck Hemann June 3, 2009 at 9:44 am

David – this is an incredibly good post, particularly for your agency readers who are often in a hurry to share their opinions. We most certainly get paid for providing counsel to our clients, but talking too much demonstrates to the client a high level of self-orientation. Thought-provoking questions demonstrate an understanding of the subject matter, but also a low self-orientation.

I’d encourage all PR pros to read David Maiser’s, “The Trusted Advisor.” Great book on this point.


7 Mike Driehorst June 3, 2009 at 9:45 am

Asking questions definitely is a “best practice” in agency-client relationships (heck, even for in-house comms pros).

Humility is such an under appreciated quality in PR and other marketing communications. I know a lot about a relatively few topics, and some about a lot — enough to know that the person or company I’m working with at the time knows a whole lot more about its product and its long-range goals than I do.

Ask. Ask. Ask. Think. Ask again. Then recommend (with research and more give and take mixed in).


8 Kristen Kouk June 3, 2009 at 9:46 am

Great reminder! Of course as PR professionals we often want to lead with value, but one can never overestimate the importance of asking questions (especially with possible clients). Looking forward to more!



9 Scott June 3, 2009 at 9:50 am


You clearly know that the secret to success is communication, and the best communicators are the best listeners.

Good reminder & good post.


10 Jessica DuBois June 3, 2009 at 9:52 am

Great post! Questions are the vital key to really opening up a discussion on a topic. Others are always more inclined to ask their questions after you’ve broken the ice, and asking questions is a good way to show you’re engaged in the conversation – even if you’re entry level, as Lauren mentioned. In my experience, I have found that people truly appreciate questions, whether they’re coming from the intern, or the CEO.


11 David June 3, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Agreed. It also shows you’re engaged, inquisitive and interested.


12 Jason Sprenger June 3, 2009 at 9:56 am

Couldn’t have said it any better, David.


13 Lauren Pearson June 3, 2009 at 10:20 am

Thanks for the great post and comments all around. PR professionals need to take a step back and first process the information, then ask thoughful questions before coming up with the ‘answer’. I couldn’t agree more and will try and hone in on this quality in my current job. Great career tip!


14 Donnie Turlington June 3, 2009 at 10:25 am

Great post David! One of the people I look up to most in my career is someone who has perfected the art of asking questions. It shows that you care about the client’s issue or situation and demonstrates that you are a critical thinker. I absolutely agree that listening and asking questions should be the first step to any “counsel” that we as practitioners offer.


15 Mary Barber June 3, 2009 at 11:49 am

Wonderful post David that really hits the nail on the head. So many times we try to seem intelligent without first hearing the problem. We are so concerned about billable time and productivity we don”t take the time to understand. We can all take clues from some Native cultures where often the answers don’t come from the elders until days/months after.


16 David June 3, 2009 at 7:55 pm

What’s really interesting to me is that many times the question someone asks shows their intelligence as much the opinions they give. Questions can demonstrate the value you bring to the discussion as much as the statements you make.


17 Sarah Montague June 3, 2009 at 11:56 am

Listening is critical and we all need reminders to talk less and listen more. With respect to asking questions: I think what is also very powerful and can shift strategy is to ask a “more powerful question.” Ask a question that opens up more possibilities.


18 Veronica Brown June 3, 2009 at 12:17 pm

Great post, David! Whenever I’m talking to a group of PR students, I like to ask them what they think is the most critical skill for a PR professional to have. As you might imagine, almost no one says listening – so I then get the opportunity to open up a discussion about it.

I’d add to your thoughts above that listening isn’t just about hearing the words someone’s saying. As professional communicators, I think we can all agree that a good listener takes into account body language, interpersonal interactions and other non-verbal cues to help increase their understanding of what’s being said, the dynamics at play and what the client (or company team) is really trying to accomplish. In many cases – as mentioned by some of the folks above – understanding the dynamics of the room can increase your chances of asking a spot-on question that both enhances the quality of the discussion and encourages others to speak up, too.


19 David June 3, 2009 at 7:56 pm

Completely agree. Thanks for expanding on the importance of listening. Great points.


20 Bettina June 3, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Great post, David! The book I am reading, “Money Well Spent: A Strategic Guide to Smart Philanthropy”, by Paul Brest, President of the Hewlett Foundation, makes the same point as critical before investing in social change. (Full disclosure: he mentions the work of Best for Babes in the book.) Personally, in our journey to solve low breastfeeding rates, I feel that not enough questions are being asked, and I also think asking questions in the media is more powerful sometimes than rattling off statistics–hopefully it can trigger more action. Thanks for advocating for more questions!


21 Stuart Foster June 3, 2009 at 2:21 pm

“Listen with the intention of understanding.” This represents a massive paradigm shift. We are so geared up and ready to go as PR pros that we often forget to really listen and be introspective about our client’s needs. They know their business better then us, after all it is theirs.


22 amymengel June 3, 2009 at 3:01 pm

A good reminder for all of us. In addition to a well-timed question helping to really show your smarts, the other advantage is that a lot of times you can get the client/stakeholder to answer it. They’ll think they’ve come up with the answer or solution, and it’s much easier to get buy-in for an idea when someone thinks it’s their own. :-)



23 David June 3, 2009 at 7:58 pm

Great minds think alike! I almost included that point in the post, but took it out. One of my favorite ways to win buy-in for an idea is to ask others a question that leads them to arrive at the same conclusion. It’s a great tactic.

Thanks for bringing it up!


24 Rachel Kay June 3, 2009 at 5:07 pm

I love this – as communicators it’s critical not only to ask questions to get to the heart of a need and develop strategy, but to anticipate potential questions that may be asked by other people. We do a Q&As for all of our clients to make sure questions are asked and answered ahead of time to eliminate surprises.


25 Arik Hanson June 3, 2009 at 6:26 pm

What Amy said 😉 Seriously, there’s a hint of consulting 101 here. You need to listen–really listen–before you can effectively solve problems for the client. And, as Amy says, many cases, you want the client to believe they’re solving their own problems. It’s certainly a different brand of consulting, but in my amateur view, it’s the right one.



26 Mark Harai June 3, 2009 at 6:37 pm

Hi David – great post! The most powerful statement in this post is here: “Don’t listen with the intention of responding. Listen with the intention of understanding.” If you listen with the intention of understanding, you will learn more, gain insight on things you didn’t know before and add value to conversations.


27 David June 3, 2009 at 8:00 pm

I love that line. For the record, I can’t claim it as my own. I believe I read it from Covey a long time ago.


28 AliSwi June 5, 2009 at 10:00 am

I think many people, myself included, are guilty of waiting for your chance to speak and thinking about what you are going to say that rather than really listening to what is being said by others. This can cause you to miss out on important info. I’m working on this.


29 Jeff Grass June 5, 2009 at 6:08 pm

Couldn’t agee more, David. Sometimes having good questions is more telling than simply having all the answers. As a person with a thirst for knowledge, I find myself asking questions daily. I may not ask them to someone directly — usually just to myself. But I search for the answers.

It seems many people are too busy or too self-serving to stop and LISTEN, which is NOT a good if you wish to be a successful communicator. The best communicators are great listeners — and vice versa.

Thanks for the thought provoking post. Have a good weekend!



30 Rossella July 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I’ve more experience with research focused meeting where I or my collegue must provide a research protocol or develop it with the “customer”.
You are right, often a right question could change the course of the meeting and enriched it. It could help to develop a new idea or a new approach.
I find that a critical point is also to ask the right question in the right moment. Often a question doesn’t save time, tooks to the wrong issues. The right question should be, to use a cool word, proactive.
It should be focused on the meeting’s aim.

Make a presentation or a question requires an understanding of the meeting. No stupid question to just make yourself pround to be noticed by others


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