I teach people how to speak in the media, on stage, and to each other with power and conviction. And there’s one crutch in particular I train people right out of: Asking questions. Want to make a stronger impression? Make a statement. Ideally, one that could be argued or flat-out disagreed with. That’s when you know you’re onto something.
Here’s why: Questions make the other person do the work you should be doing. Which is why they have their place in dialogue, to engage the other person directly. But I’m not talking about that kind of question. I’m talking about the rhetorical filler at the start of a talk, or the habitual “You know?” that attempts to win approval at every turn. I’m talking about the questions that keep you from making the stronger choice.
The way I see it, if you’ve got the stage, you should do most of the heavy lifting. The ability to be clear and direct is paramount; questions are a crutch. And you rely on them more than you think.
I saw this first hand in an improvisational acting class I took (one of many) at the Magnet Theater in Manhattan. (Improv, by the way, is excellent training for being in front of people, because you essentially walk out onto the stage with no clue what’s about to happen.) The instructor and Magnet cofounder Alex Marino gave us a challenge: Do our scenes without asking a single question.
I lasted less than 30 seconds.
It’s a lot harder than you realize. I was shocked at how bad I was at this. “Questions are reflexive,” Alex said. “We use them to blunt statements and figure out what’s going on.” Which, in improv, is part of the problem: No one knows what the F is going on. That’s the game. But questions stall the scene and detract from the action. They soften and qualify and weaken. They rely on buy-in (“You know I mean?”, for example). When you rely on questions, you fail to create the scene—or anything interesting. Instead, you shift the burden to the other person (“Can YOU tell me what I’m doing up here?”)
It made me realize how often I use questions instead of statements in general, and how, in so doing, I compromise my own conviction. And so do you. It keeps improvisers and presenters and people in general from making something far more powerful: A choice.
(Want to listen instead? Be my guest.)
Women do this far more than men, by the way, because we’re raised to think that way: Be agreeable. Please people. Make nice. Asking questions is an outgrowth of that urge. It makes you tip-toe instead of stomp.
So whatever it is you’re doing, or trying to do more of, whether it’s TV, radio, web, seminars, or just growing as a professional in your industry and having people take you seriously, take a good look at where you’re relying on questions instead of making statements. Where you’re hedging and qualifying, instead of owning your shit. And where you’re leaning on your audience/user/reader to fill in the blanks instead of taking the lead.
You can’t afford to sacrifice directness and power when you’re building a brand. It’s what the strongest brands are made of. No questions asked.