Interviewing Versus Elicitation

People often ask, “What is the benefit of elicitation versus the standard interview?” Actually they have a lot in common.

Preparation in similar. You want to learn as much about that person as you can before you talk to them. Is there something about their profession that you can comment on to get the conversation flowing? Do they work in an interesting industry? Is there some industry jargon that you better know to be believed? What is their communication style? What will put them at ease to share with you early in the interview? Do you have something in common that you can build rapport with?

phone intv 2 peopleFor an interview, I list all the questions I want answered and then rephrase them in a way that makes it easier for the person to become engaged based on my research of their personality, preferred communication style and profession. This is a great exercise since mentally I start thinking about all the different ways they might respond, and in turn what other questions I might ask, that are not on my list, based on their response. I create something like a decision tree for interviewing, and you thought decision trees were just used in statistics. You can never be too prepared to talk to people, since interviews seldom go as planned, especially over the phone.

Whether you have an appointment or make a cold call, you are interrupting the person’s day, so you need to use your words wisely so as not to waste their time. With some people, a little small talk is all it takes to jump start the interview. With others, state your purpose and get to the point. Others will ask you questions to test your knowledge before they’ll share.

Elicitation is a conversational interview, a planned conversation. People remember the beginning and the end of a conversation more than what is spoken in the middle. If you are asking a series of questions they might wonder why you are asking those questions, and how they should answer. How is the interviewer going to use the information I share? Hmm, I wonder how much I should share? What’s in it for me to share this information?

So you start and end your elicitation conversation with some inconsequential questions about the weather, last night’s football score or ask what brings them to the trade show. Other than this small talk, you don’t ask questions. For some this takes practice. For me it comes naturally, since it’s human nature. When John Nolan taught us a workshop on elicitation in 1995, I remember thinking that I had been using some of these techniques and didn’t know this was elicitation.

Elicitation builds off human tendencies that most people have: a desire for recognition, showing off, curiosity, gossip, complaining, correcting you. Most people can’t keep a secret. There are numerous techniques, and I will illustrate a couple.

One of my favorites is flattery. Some people have a strong ego while others get so little recognition that stroking their ego really works.  Simple flattery often coaxes a person into a conversation that otherwise would not have taken place. Everybody, whether prominent, or very low on the totem pole, reacts to flattery as long as it’s genuine. A common way to use flattery is, “I’ve heard you’re the best…an expert…”

Another favorite is coming across as naïve. People just can’t resist enlightening you. Naïve doesn’t mean stupid. It just means that you don’t quite understand something.  For example when I spoke to a trades person about his instrument, I wanted to learn why he liked this particular competitor’s model. I simply said, “I am not as familiar with this company as I only know the market leader’s instrument which you replaced with this competitor’s model.” That’s all it took, and he told me what he liked about the competitor’s model, and why he didn’t replace it with the market leader’s.

This above call didn’t go as planned. According to my client’s database, this trades person was using one of their instruments. However, that was an error, and he was using a competitor’s model. I didn’t hesitate to find out more information about the competition.

I bet many of you who conduct primary research or interviews use elicitation techniques and don’t even realize it. If you want to learn more about this, you can read John Nolan’s book, Confidential. I gave a webinar for SLA’s Competitive Intelligence division. Check out the Slideshare deck.

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Cooperative Communication: Digital versus Voice

email-phone-face-to-faceEveryday communication has become a complex business. When I started my job, it was so much easier. We had 3 choices: face-to-face, telephone and hardcopy. It was challenging enough then, since few of us received training on communication as part of our education. In years past, I picked up the telephone to communicate without an appointment. If it was a bad time, the other person would tell me and we would set up a better time.

Now we have so many additional choices ranging from old fashioned email, the various forms of social media, texting, blogs, wikis, and face to face electronic conferencing like SKYPE or Google hangouts. Where do you get trained on when and how to effectively use all these ways to communicate?

A recent HBR blog post, “Just Call Someone Already,” attracted over 100 comments and focused on when to use the phone versus email, often used instead of the phone. I resonated with the author, Dan Pallotta in his comment, “Much worse than the inefficiency of using email to set up phone calls are the missed opportunities and unnecessary misunderstandings that come when we use email instead of phone calls.”

Today many feel compelled to text or email a person to schedule a call, and better yet to avert the call, since many view phone calls as an inefficient use of time, an interruption to their day. Nobody has a monopoly on busy, and this attitude about interruption and efficiency at the expense of building human relationships seems unkind. It also feels selfish to me, since these folks are just considering their preferences, not the other person’s.

Email is often used to express emotions or feelings that people are too embarrassed to say. However, I think it’s better to confront the other person and clear things up over the telephone or better yet in person. I have received more rude emails, where people write things they would not have the nerve to say to my face or on the telephone. Another downfall of email is when it gets sent to too many people that don’t need to know or care about your communication.

I also notice rudeness in LinkedIn comments, Twitter and Facebook, where there is one up man ship professionally, for example. I resent the number of emails I get in my LinkedIn inbox asking for endorsements; please take a survey; buy my service—which these people presumably blast out to their LinkedIn connections just like email spammers. There is more blatant WIFM (what’s in it for me) in the digital world.

Everyone seems to agree that face-to-face is still the best way to connect as you can read the person’s body language which is so revealing. But in today’s world we are so scattered that many of us can’t easily or cheaply meet face-to-face. I always recommend that people connect the next best way which is often the telephone, SKYPE or Google hangouts.

However, email is still the steam engine for digital communication since it leaves a written trail, and you can communicate with many people simultaneously in one email, and time zones don’t matter. You can also attach a document for people to review, not an option with the phone, but an option with SKYPE or Google hangouts.

A best cooperative intelligence practice is to think about how the individual you want to reach likes to be communicated with, even if it’s not your preference. People in Sales figure this out pretty quickly.  They call; they fax; they email; they in-mail; whatever it takes connect to decision-makers. Another cooperative best practice is only send communication to those who will value it.

I am pretty open minded about communication. I like to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. In one win/loss project, I was doing one on one interviews. I emailed to set up a call with one non-customer. He refused, but did offer that he would be happy to email me answers to my questions. I got some of the best insight from this gentleman—all because I listened and accepted his preferred communication.

Why Business Researchers Should Be Skeptical

cynthia leskyCynthia Lesky, CEO of Theshold Information, gave a great webinar entitled, “Business Research in the Age of Truthiness” to the Competitive Intelligence division of the SLA.

Cynthia extrapolates truthiness from Stephen Colbert, “Truthiness is what you want the facts to be as opposed to what the facts are.” Those reporting news want to build and keep a loyal following, so they take advantage of confirmation bias, which is a tendency for people to look for and believe information that confirms their prejudices.

Cynthia recommends three ways to improve your research skills in today’s hyper-mediated truth-challenged world:

  1.  Have a skeptical mindset as you are researching and reading articles.
  2.  Develop a strong source literacy skill. Learn which are more trustworthy. Gain industry expertise and learn to trust your intuition when something doesn’t look right.
  3. Put together a rich report at the conclusion of your research which provides as direct a response as possible to your client’s questions. Point out reporting errors and inconsistencies you discovered in your research, and new questions your research uncovered that were not answered.

Press ReleasesYou should be skeptical about the accuracy of the information you find through digital media and traditional media sources, since so much of it comes from press releases and is regurgitated more or less at face value by general news aggregators, industry aggregators and often enough by API, the source of many articles we read in newspapers these days. This information is used by bloggers, Tweeters and other digital media authors who may embellish on the press release, and sometimes do additional research to include facts that the original press release left out, or maybe not.

According to Jim O’Shea, former Senior Editor of the Star Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, most reporting today is churnalism. The story is not being reported: it’s being repeated. Newspaper staffs have been drastically cut and many papers have ceased operations or have moved to digital formatting. In The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John Nichols report that as of 2008, there were .90 PR people to 100,000 versus .25 journalists, a ratio of more than three-to-one, better equipped and financed.

Remember press releases are carefully crafted to further the interests of the originating organization, whether a company, government organization, trade association or other special interest group. News aggregators, industry aggregators, newspapers, bloggers and social media writers share one thing in common: they write for a targeted (think truthiness) readership and want to increase the number of eyeballs who look at their publication. So they include data that supports their agenda within an article, especially the headline, even if it might distort the facts. The right headline helps them get found on the Internet.

Here is a blatant example of how bias distorts facts. API and Life Goes Strong, (NBC Digital Networks and Procter & Gamble Productions network of websites targeting baby boomers and promoting P&G products), conducted a poll of older workers. They both reported from the same set of results, but notice that the headlines have a different spin.

  • Poll Exposes Age Discrimination in Today’s Workforce (LifeGoesStrong.com)
  • Working Boomers Say Age is a Plus at Office (API)

So who is telling the truth? A skeptical, informed person recognizes that news contains some bias, distortion and misinformation. You also know you can’t rely on a single news source, and if the same news is repeated by many sources, it’s good idea to find the original source, so you can check its veracity and the content that JDLR (just don’t look right).

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