Show, don’t tell – Tell, don’t ask

How do you make things real for your audience? How do you move complex work forward swiftly?

Easy: you go from wishful thinking to concrete and tangible. You “Show, don’t tell”, and you “Tell, don’t ask”.

The first quote is an old saying, and I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. I made up the second one, but I like it just as much.  😊  Here is what both of those approaches mean to me:

Show don’t tell

If you want to have an impact and drive action, it often matters more how you say something than what you say. As you try to convince your audience and convey your thoughts, you must make them clear and real for your listeners.

Make it specific – “Specifics eat generics for breakfast” (I made this one up as well). Be specific! Provide examples, explain the specific impact, concrete next steps, dates, and owner. Instead of “we are trying to complete the project through summer”, say “Sam will complete the exploration phase by July 15th, after which Tom is responsible for implementation completion by September 21st”. Instead of “let’s regroup and follow-up on this”, say “we will meet next Wednesday and make a final decision on this – let the group know of any additional information you need to make that decision”.

Specifics eat generics for breakfast.

Make it real – Show a visual if you can. We can talk about how we should do things all day long, and everyone will make up their own pictures in their heads, circling around the discussion and misunderstanding each other. Show an image, flow chart, demo, UX mock-up, and your discussion and decision-making will leap forward. Give your attendees something to hold onto and react to – it will dramatically change the discussion’s dynamic. The same applies to agendas and meeting notes. Show them to your audience as you are in the meeting. Share your screen as you type the notes, provide your audience an artifact to look at, and anchor the discussions through that artifact. Extra points if you share those notes in real-time with the group.

Provide artifacts to anchor discussions.

Speak confidently – Last but not least, speak confidently. Say it like you mean it. If you’re not confident in your opinion and plans, take some extra time to think them through, but then step up and make an impression. Avoid softening words like “wish”, “hope”, “want”, “could”, “should” and instead use clear and confident language. “We will” convinces and wins your audience. Saying “I hope we can get this done by the end of Fall” is a recipe for failure; putting a stake in the ground and stating “we will do whatever it takes to go live on October 1st” gets your team focused.

Say it like you mean it!

Tell don’t ask

If you want to make progress, you need to put stakes in the ground. If you wait for others to make decisions for you, you will spend a lot of your time waiting…

Open-ended questions – I hear open-ended questions in the decision phase of many project discussions. “What do you think?” is a great question for brainstorming – and only for that! I am by no means downplaying the value of open-ended questions. They have their place in discovery, brainstorming, reflection, coaching, mentoring, and even in critical and contentious discussions. They are terrific to foster learning, information sharing, and broadening understanding and perspective. Unfortunately, they are terrible for coming to decisions.

Closed questions – Closed questions and “tell, don’t ask” come into play when it’s time to establish a common base and move on (“Any objections?”, “Is there anyone who doesn’t agree?”). They are also your tool to drive decisions. For example, don’t ask “What do you think?” when it’s decision time, instead tell and verify: “Alright, the plan is to roll this out by August 8th – are there any blocking issues with that?” Btw, don’t ask for “concerns” – voicing concerns is a tactic that is often (unconsciously) used by risk-averse team members to push away responsibility for unknown risks. It will not help you to advance a decision – ask for “blocking issues” instead.

Be deliberate about when you want to widen the discussion funnel (ask and listen – open questions) and when you need to narrow it (tell and confirm – closed questions).

Turn silence into an advantage – Have you ever said “Please come back to me and let me know if you agree or have concerns”, only to never hear back from anyone and not knowing if you had support or opposition for the plan? I certainly have. I learned to switch to “default approval statements” (not an actual terminology, I made that up as well) instead. Give a clear timeline by which you need to hear any objections and define what silence (i.e., lack of feedback) automatically triggers at that date. A good way of establishing a decision is to say “Unless I hear any blocking objections by the end of day tomorrow, we will move forward with the plan as proposed”.

Don’t trap yourself in an undetermined waiting loop – make default approval statements with a clear deadline.




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