Your conversations and content need more than good stories. They need better answers!
Most of us were taught early and often about the importance of using stories in our conversations and content.
Marketers seem to obsess about story. Sales people are told to address customer problems and solution approaches by telling stories. And rightly so. It seems humans are hard wired with an affinity for stories.
But, it turns out stories are just one of six answer types. That means you’re missing the other five! As a result, your answers aren’t as coherent as they could be. They aren’t as influential. They are aren’t as sticky.
Audiences Desire Answers with Useful Information
Here are some questions to consider:
How well do you address questions asked of you? (In which situations?)
Or, a question asked of a sales rep, a company executive, customer service person, channel partner, or customer person, where “we” have the answers, but they must be delivered through others?
How do you prepare yourself and others to respond to questions in ways that influence and motivate the behaviors and actions you intend?
How can you simplify the complex world of B2B conversations and content, without sacrificing quality or generating confusion and frustration?
Good questions, yes. But as a reader, not satisfying. You want more. You want answers!
Unfortunately, too often answers still leave people wanting more. We’ve all had this experience.
I have a long history as a service provider and “student” of, creating high-performing content. My primary focus has been with B2B organizations that deploy a complex or “value” selling model.
A core cause of B2B conversation and content challenges is this transformational shift. Companies are moving from a relatively simplistic, product selling model, to an inherently complex, customer-team of buyers-problem cause-solution approach-value selling model.
This changes everything. But not everybody. Change is difficult and uncomfortable.
The need for better answers became glaringly evident to me several years ago. I started to apply my content strategy and design capabilities to designing critical sales conversations for key situations. After all, conversations are content, and content is required to support influential conversations!
I learned to ask two framing questions:
What are your critical sales conversations?
(Where, if you do well, you’re in the game, advancing, perhaps gaining the “pole position” relative to competitors, attaining influencer or “trusted advisor” status.)
What are the questions that buckle the knees of those responsible for providing the answers?
These questions demonstrate the power of effective questions. It’s why we value questions so highly.
But what buckles knees isn’t the question being asked, it’s lack of confidence or competence to provide the answers.
After all, this is complex stuff! And audiences aren’t necessarily great listeners. And they don’t want to be “students” of the topic in question. They just want informative, actionable answers!
What if there was a model to guide us to anticipate and prepare responses to the important questions that will be asked of us, or our representatives?
This question prompted me to investigate ways to provide better answers to questions.
Answer Intelligence (AQ)
I met Dr. Brian Glibkowski when he was a professor at Stonehill College outside of Boston. He is currently Associate Professor of Management at North Central College, in Naperville, IL. He is also the pioneer of a research-based approach to providing “elevated answers” to business and life questions. His book Raise Your AQ is due out in late 2020.
Brian and I have worked on a couple of projects together. I have found his Answer Intelligence, or AQ model very useful.
Brian defines AQ, as:
“The ability to provide six answer types to important questions.”
This statement is also an example of one of those types: CONCEPT
He explains further using another type: METAPHOR
“AQ is the coin of the realm — something valued as if it were money. We hire consultants for their ability to provide answers. The best teachers answer our questions. Problem solving ends when an answer is found. Generally, answers are the currency by which we influence others.”
STORY is indeed one of the six types. This example also incorporates a metaphor.
“The first time I knew AQ was important was after a client meeting with an executive at a life insurance company. I was working on a technology solution that required three parties to work together (the life insurance company, a 3rd party technology consultant, and me). I wanted a metaphor to answer the question “What is a partnership?” I used the metaphor of a three-legged stool. If one leg of the stool is taken away, the stool falls down. The same was true for our partnership. The metaphor worked. I knew it worked because unprompted the executive used the metaphor in a subsequent conversation.”
A THEORY explains a cause-and-effect relationship between concepts. The stool story demonstrates how effective answers can influence others. In a complex world answers provide influence because they explain and predict, emotionally connect, and motivate action.
Every priority in business and life is implemented with PROCEDURES and ACTIONS. These are also related, but distinct. For example, the steps to identify an organization’s content requirements, illustrated in the graphic from the content planning video, is a procedure – a sequence of steps. Within each step there are specific actions that must be taken correctly to produce the optimal result.
The Familiar “5Ws”
These six answer types align with the question categories: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.
These are very familiar to us. So they provide convenient “memory hooks” to attach each type.
Why? = Theory and Story
What? = Concept and Metaphor
How? = Procedure and Action
Who, When and Where define context. The three questions above are always situated in context. Context adds to complexity and challenges.
When the AQ model is applied, if a “why” question is asked, the communicator knows to deliver a “theory” answer, perhaps supported by a “story.” Of course, it’s recommended to follow responses with appropriate questions back to the communication partner.
Our design work for critical conversations is centered on a core principle. Well defined and documented “conversation frameworks” inform, guide, and provide a basis for feedback on the best ways to conduct each critical conversation.
The AQ model guides answer preparation and categorization.
Questions to ask, anticipated questions, and recommended responses are important elements of each framework.
Communicators want to know “what will I be asked, and what do I say?”
Of course, there are two aspects to the “what do I say?”:
- Key points or messages, and
- “How to say or deliver answers”
The AQ model, and the preparation it guides, supports both requirements.
As this example shows, there is simply too much to know and remember to require each communicator to figure this out for themselves. It’s why critical conversations work best when they have been considered, designed, and documented as conversation frameworks.
Questions and answers inform and improve BOTH conversations and content. Often they reveal supporting content required to assist in answering questions.
Spend 4 minutes with this explanatory video to learn interesting nuances of the model.
Elevate Answer Influence Using Combinations
We discovered several nuanced methods when applying the AQ model. One example is demonstrated in the “story with metaphor” Brian used to introduce AQ above.
Answers are influenced not just by using a specific type. When answer types are used in combinations they deliver a clearer, stickier, and more influential impression.
Complementary Answers strengthen the influence of any particular answer type by including adjacent types.
In the graphic above, story and metaphor are adjacent, as are story and theory.
So, from this model we learn that “story” is a good answer type. But when combined with a relevant “theory” or “metaphor” the “complementary answers” can be even more influential.
Remember, these principles apply to content as well as conversations.
Apply AQ to Plan Your Answers for Conversations and Content
Concept – Story is just one of six answer types, six methods for answering questions
Theory – The most powerful and effective answers use a combination of answer types, especially complementary types
Metaphor – Without well considered and defined answers conversations and content are blunt instruments. Influence is constrained by the inability to penetrate audience minds and create memory hooks for important concepts.
Procedures – In your content planning and preparation work, use the content planning framework introduced in the linked video. Start by identifying the “critical conversations” that occur in the “key situations” that relate to your content project. Identify the other elements, down to your audience’s key questions. Then, consider and document your preferred answer types and combinations, for the specific questions you identify, for each content asset.
Actions – Orient your content teams to the Answer Intelligence model. Teach them to use the 7 High AQ Practices. Provide content briefs for each asset to content creators. Include all the context elements from the framework. Define quality considerations for each asset, as the effective use of identified answer types.
List of 7 High AQ Practices
The conversation design process with AQ practices also makes content planning (aka content strategy) simple, fast and effective. See Small moves, smartly made, improve (unified) content strategy