The Life Changing Question - Part 3

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 13 January 2012 |

This is the third part in my Life Changing Question series. Part 1 gives you the background on what all this is about, and Part 2 begins the exploration of the different types of powerful question. If you haven’t already read Parts 1 and 2, I’d recommend doing so before you read this, particularly as Part 1 provides a lot of information on the importance of moderating your question/answer ratio, and explains why asking, as opposed to answering questions, is so heavily linked with success. Here's the link to the start of the series...

If you've read the previous parts and are ready to go, here's something a bit different...


This is not a category of question, but a single concrete phrase. It’s probably the most important yet underused sentence in the consumer’s armoury. Four exceptionally powerful, monosyllabic words which hold the key to us grasping the full implications of any deal, and can potentially save us a fortune.

We’re very regularly blinded with science in today’s commercial world. It happens for a very good reason. And the reason is, we’re adults. Yes, it’s as simple as that. If we were children, companies would never try to baffle us with convoluted and/or ambiguous phrases. Why? Because children won’t accept phrases they don’t understand. They ask questions. And they don’t stop asking questions ‘til something makes sense. If you say something a child doesn’t understand, he/she will say: “What does that mean?” To the child, you are the idiot because you haven’t explained yourself properly.

However, as soon as we reach adulthood, something remarkable happens: we suddenly gain a perception that we’re supposed to know things. No longer is a question like: “What does that mean?”, or “Why is that?” guaranteed to prompt an immediate and full explanation. Instead, it may be met with a slightly condescending frown, and perhaps a snigger. Even if this only happens once or twice, we quickly get the message: things have changed. Now I’m an adult, I’m expected to know everything, and if I don’t, I’m going to be perceived as very, very stupid. The old tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes sums the situation up. While all the adults pretend they can see the invisible clothes for fear of appearing daft, it takes a child to ask why the emperor is naked.

Naturally, businesses have picked up on this fear we all possess, and invented a way of milking it for all it’s worth. If they can spew out a jargon-peppered lump of ambiguity as if they expect us to know what they’re talking about, then we’ll obligingly pretend that we do – just to avoid looking stupid. Needless to say, if there’s anything the company wants to hide (and there will be), this is a very convenient place for it to be hidden. 

Those most susceptible to this tactic are generally younger adults. When we're teenagers and twenty-somethings we have an almost crippling fear of looking stupid. It’s probably just nature’s way of making us more successful at dating. Afterall, if we perpetually made ourselves look stupid in front of potential partners we’d probably never form families and humanity might die out.

As we get older the fear of looking stupid diminishes as nature deems dating less necessary, and we learn much more about adult life. This makes us much more surprised when we hear phrases we’re unfamiliar with. For someone who’s been dealing in the big, wide, adult world for thirty years, an unknown phrase can stick out like a sore thumb. But even then we may still fear speaking up. Sometimes the length of time for which we’ve been adults raises the stakes. If, by slim chance, we genuinely should know what the jargon means, then we’re going to look much, much more stupid than a teenager, who’s only been an adult for a few months. Older people may not have so great an inherent fear of looking stupid, but the small amount of fear they do still have can be magnified many times by the increased expectations placed on an older adult.

But however you feel when presented with something you don’t understand, it’s vital to ask: “What does that mean?” Being able to ask the question without feeling silly is about being confident and forthright as you say it – and asking again, just as confidently, if you don’t get a digestible explanation. Say it as if the perpetrator of the jargon is the one who is stupid. The less you understand, the more stupid you need to make the jargon-spewer seem…. “You’re talking in jargon – can you explain that more clearly?”… “You’re over-complicating this with fancy terminology – can you rephrase it in plain terms?”… “I can’t buy until I’ve understood this, so can I ask you to use clearer terminology”… Or, of course, you could use a variant of your own making. But all of these are really secondary remarks. Use “What does that mean?” as a first resort. Keep asking “What does that mean?”, or a variation thereof, until you get a proper explanation and fully understand every detail.

When I worked in a contact centre selling insurance, some of the staff didn't even understand all the statements in the sales scripts themselves, so what chance a customer would have I've no idea. It was a strange experience being on the business's side of the interaction. You knew people didn't have a clue what you were talking about, but on they'd go with their verbal nods, as if the bunch of deliberately scrambled and jargon-filled lines you were reading to them had instantly sunk in. Some people probably did understand, but my sense was that most didn't. And those who didn't were pretending they did - more out of social compliance than anything else. We read the lines in the general manner of: duh, like, who wouldn't understand this? And the customers obligingly understood the incomprehensible (or at least made out that they did), because that was what was expected of them.

But a lot of those customers were wrong to accept the jargon, because they were getting ripped off. Not just because they were often paying vast amounts of money, but because in some cases the policies barely covered them. We were actually telling people they weren't covered for certain eventualities, but under the shroud of jargon and unnecessarily convoluted terms. If any of them had stopped us and asked: "What does that mean?" - and kept asking until they understood, we would have been forced to tell them they were spending a hell of a lot of money on a policy they barely needed. Simply by asking the right questions, some could have saved £thousands.

So kids are right. The onus is on the source of the info to present it in a digestible way – not on the recipient to try and assemble a verbal jigsaw. If we switch on the TV to watch the cup final, we expect the announcer to say: “And now it’s time for the cup final”. We wouldn’t accept: “Until such time as the ensuing program hereinafter referred to as the event should run the fullness of its course and conclude we shall be engaged in viewing notwithstanding any periods of interlude deemed fit by the company to interrupt continuous coverage in transmission of the event.” And of course no TV company would ever dare contemplate such a stupid announcement. It would be meaningless to a very wide section of the audience and prompt many, many people to switch to the rival channel.

In this instance, it’s in the TV company’s express interests to be clear, so it sends a very clear message. Only when businesses need to be unclear, do they deliberately scramble information. And when businesses need to be unclear, it’s because they’re legally bound to tell us something we’re not going to like.

Some of the most successful people I’ve met – MDs and top bosses – are extremely handy with the phrase “what does that mean?”, and believe me, they’re never the ones who end up looking stupid. Use the phrase, use it with authority, and always believe single-mindedly that your inability to understand is entirely the result of the other party's inability to explain properly.

In Part 4, we'll be delving further into the world of questions and their immense power.

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.