Let Your Questions Draw Conclusions

An ancient rule of social awareness: When you want to impress someone, ask a question.

Questions are involvement devices. And a question that matches the recipient’s interest in any subject (provided that question is asked with a modicum of intelligence) represents reader-involvement in direct mail or online. It’s the most venerable of all mechanisms in telemarketing.

Want proof? The space ad for the Sherwin Cody School of English, which ran unchanged for 45 years, had this never-to-be-forgotten headline: “Do you make these mistakes in English?”

Oh, sure, we’re in the year 2012. Our targets are super-sophisticated from exposure to a multitude of media and a plethora of phony deals. Is the Sherwin Cody approach an antiquity? Hardly. Just Google “Do you make these mistakes” and you’ll get more than 300 million entries, most of which don’t mention Sherwin Cody.

That the category lives and breathes may give pause to those who say flatly, “Don’t ask a question to which your prospective customer or client can say, ‘No.’ ” Enough will say, “Yes,” or continue from curiosity, to justify the ploy. Remember Bill Jayme’s headline for Psychology Today? “Do you close the bathroom door even when you’re the only one home?” Or how about “Do you sleep in the nude?”

Questions can take the sting out of an accusation. Someone says to you, “You’re drunk.” Drunk or not, you say, “Of course I’m not drunk,” and you hate the accuser. Someone shakes his head and asks, “Are you drunk?” Drunk or not, you say, “Of course I’m not drunk,” and you wonder what prompted the question. The difference: You’re left to draw the conclusion instead of having the conclusion foisted onto you.

So questions, which can penetrate skepticism where even the most solidly-couched imperative can’t, should be solidly on the table when you’re deciding how to convince a target to click here or pick up the phone.

Boiler-plate questions? Yes. So what?
You noticed, I hope, that the subhead just preceding this sentence includes two questions. Suppose the subhead had been “Boiler-plate questions.” Would that have been as potent an impeller for you to keep reading? (Note, please—we just ended another sentence with a question.)

If you’re coating a negative with rhetoric, questions can be your valuable ally. You quickly recognize the difference between, “I guess you’re wondering what happened” and “Want to know what happened?” or between “Bad news for us” and “Should I call this bad news for us?” The question absorbs much of the sting. “Am I sorry? You bet I am” is less likely to spur a dismissal than a straight “I’m sorry.”

As I started to write this column, up popped an email on my monitor: “Do you have the right online brand protection strategy in place for 2012?”

I opine that this isn’t optimal use of a question because of another rock-hard principle of force-communication: Specifics outpull generalizations. For a sales argument as loose as this one, the specifics-lacking question might be less effective than a provocative statement.

“Oops. I just looked and you might not have the right online brand protection strategy in place for this year.” It’s no world-beater, but is a tad more involving. That’s why effective copywriting demands the professional laying on of hands.

Questions work for b-to-b.
Who can turn away from this question without at least reading the sentence that might follow: “What are you willing to pay for a new customer?”

A b-to-b question can be considerably more brutal than a consumer-aimed question because in about 80% of the cases (a percentile guess), we’re after improvement to the bottom line. So, “Is it time to fire your advertising agency?”—if followed by a set of understandable and logical principles—will get at least readership, if not direct action.

Now suppose the communication had come not from a dispassionate source but from a competing advertising agency and was worded, “It’s time to fire your advertising agency.” That becomes intrusion, not conversion.

(A more common advertising agency question: “What is your budget?”)

Don’t overdo it
Multiple questions can diminish the effectiveness of one another. The opening of an email message:
We want to hear your opinions on the world of fashion & style.
Who’s your favorite designer?
What are your thoughts on the latest collections?
Who did you see in the front rows and at the parties this season?

Blah. The questions are flat, generalized and non-motivational. When a recipient isn’t stirred, he or she switches to “picky” mode, maybe even criticizing that “Who did you see” should be “Whom did you see,” and that the ampersand in “fashion & style” should be and.

But the ultimate question in today’s force-communication world is one over which every one of us agonizes every day; it’s a genuine “grabber” question that freezes hand-on-mouse in mid-move:

Are you sure you want to delete this message?

Herschell Gordon Lewis (hglewis1@aol.com) is the principal of Lewis Enterprises (herschellgordonlewis.com).

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