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Stop Asking Questions

Yesterday I received an email solicitation that was a good example of a bad technique: asking too many questions. It began with this question:

How often do you get 100% participation in a presentation or training session?

Although I do not understand the question (Does participation mean attendance or involvement?), I read on.

It continued with this question:

How much time, effort, and money is spent [should be “are spent”] on surveys to determine the effectiveness of your training programs?

Followed by yet another question:

Is anything done with this information?

And one more:

Do you push information at your classes with a PowerPoint presentation and, upon testing, learn that 20-40% of trainees did not get it?

I have now read four rather intrusive questions (remember, I did not ask for this message), and I still have no idea who is writing to me or what the writer has to offer.

The message goes on to say that the writer’s company “will satisfy these and a host of other issues.” I do not know what that means. It then tells me that the writer’s product “is the most powerful, easy-to-use group response system available today.” I do not know what a group response system is or how it will help me.

The message contains just one more paragraph, which informs me about how I can contact the writer for a demonstration that will show me the “benefits that will be realized in your presentations and training classes.” I do not know what these benefits are or why I should care.

Four files are attached to the message (“additional information about the company”).

The writer asked a bunch of questions, then told me nothing of value about the product she is offering except that I can get more information. Why would I want to?

Questions are a useful technique to draw in the reader. But four questions at the start of an unsolicited message from a stranger is two or three too many. The questions totaled 61 words, but the balance of the text totaled just 76 words, most of which told how to contact the writer.

The writer might have begun something like this:

How often do you get 100 percent participation in your presentations and training sessions? XYZ product increases participant involvement by 70 percent. Here’s how. . . . [followed by a brief real example]

Here is another way of starting:

How much time, effort, and money do you spend on surveys to determine the effectiveness of your training programs? With our XYZ product, you can know you are spending those resources wisely.

I myself have overused questions, as you can observe at the top of my home page. I added two questions when I decided I wanted to address both companies and individuals. But now I have too many. When I update the page, I will reduce the number of questions and move more quickly into useful information.

In a business or personal conversation, questions can show interest. At the beginning of a sales letter, a question can engage the reader. But asking lots of questions without sharing information–that’s more like interrogation or survey-taking than good communication.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.