The more interesting question

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My wife and I recently had a couple (let's call them Shelly and Michael) over for dinner. Together they run a small press book promotion business. Naturally, we got talking about public relations, social media and about Twitter in particular. "How do people have time for that?" Shelly asked. Politic host that I am, I suggested that she was asking the wrong question. "There are lots of very busy, successful people using Twitter every day," I explained. "So, I think the more interesting question is: 'Why do so many of them chose to use Twitter?'"

It struck me then that many people, like my friend Shelly, fail to understand the value of social media because they simply ask the wrong questions. And, when you ask the wrong question, three things happen:

First, you frame the problem incorrectly. Second, you often bring unnecessary baggage to the discussion. Finally, when you ask the wrong question, no matter what answer you get, it won't be of much value.

As my Twitter pal Melaine McBride points out, it's a question of the frame you put around a concept, an idea George Lakoff has been championing for years.

In Shelly's case, her question carried the implied suggestion and frame that unlike her, people using Twitter either have little to occupy their time or they shirk important work in order to fritter away their days in idle chatter with strangers.

So, the question is also its own filter that pre-screens any valuable input. Without ever using it, Shelly believed Twitter was a service that forces you to waste you workday, 140 characters at a time. Her husband, Michael, was of the same opinion. It was clear that when Shelly asked, "How do people have time for that?" he shook his head sadly and with a little bemused distain.

So, trapped in an echo chamber with the wrong question bouncing around inside it, they've never explored the service for them or their clients, which is unfortunate.

We all do this. I often ask wrong questions like: "Why would anyone hire anyone with an MBA?", "what's up with people using Windows?" or "why do I have to fax anyone anymore?" When we ask questions like this we set ourselves up to learn nothing. The questions I should be asking are:

"Why do I think all MBAs are dicks?", "what features does Windows have that I should value?" and "is my view of the pervasive nature of modern tech completely skewed?" I should ask, but it's easier for me to lob out questions that reinforce my biases. That's human nature.

For example, last week I was speaking to a conference about cancer prevention. The group of extremely bright researchers, educators and communicators had, in general, almost no knowledge of social media tools or communities.

I was encouraging them to dive into social media spaces with gusto. Part of their reluctance was their desire to step back and figure out what to measure when they engaged. The question was: "How will we know we've been successful? What metrics should we establish?"

But, again, in my opinion, that's the wrong question. The more interesting question is: "What conversations are you missing because you're spending time worrying too much about metrics when you could be joining in?" Sometimes you can over think yourself out of a party.

While you're fretting over which cufflinks to wear, other folks are on their second glass of wine and are having a gay old time without you. And again, the question comes from a scientific, authoritative mindset that imposes more gravitas on the social situation than it really deserves. Nobody wants someone with a clipboard at a slumber party.

There was a lot of concern at the conference about control brands and conversations. "How can we maintain authority?" was a question I heard more than once. But, the more interesting question is: "How can I be an authentic, experienced voice in an interesting conversation I don't own?"

When you don't know enough to ask the right thing, sometimes the best question is: "I know what I want to ask, tell me what I should be asking."

As another of my Twitter pals, Colin Carmichael pointed out, in some situations, asking "what do I need to ask" is like "telling someone to wander onto a used car lot and ask the first salesperson what kind of car they should buy." That, of course, would be a great way to get smoke blown up your butt.

But, in a topsy turvy space like social media; where the things that shouldn't work, do, and the things that work elsewhere, don't; it's often best to question your questions.

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