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How to talk so people will talk: use a gentle tone of voice and simple wording

Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy
This was written as part of the rough draft for Deploy Empathy, a practical guide to interviewing customers.
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In Chris Voss’s Never Split the Difference, he suggests using a “Late Night DJ voice” in a negotiation. 
“You’re listening to the smooth sounds of WBMT 88.3 FM…”
Therapists will often speak in soft, slow voices as a form of co-regulation to calm their patients. 
These techniques help put the other person at ease and create an environment where they feel safe.
A customer interview should be conducted in the most harmless voice you can possibly muster.
Imagine you are asking a treasured older family member about a photo of themselves as a young person. There might be:
  • A gentle, friendly tone of voice
  • A softness to your tone
  • Genuine, judgement-free curiosity
Or perhaps picture that a close friend has come to you experiencing a personal crisis in the middle of the night. You would listen to them, calmly, and just try to figure out what was going on. You probably wouldn’t start offering ideas or solutions to their problem, and would focus on helping them get back to a clearer state of mind. 
Use that same gentleness in your customer interviews. 
It’s important to note, though, that you cannot be condescending. I purposefully do not say to speak to them like you would a child, because people have very different ways of talking to children. 
Think of your customer as someone you respect and you can learn from.
“Why would you do it that way!” said in a medium-volume voice with emphasis on certain words could make it sound accusatory and put them on the defense, versus “Can you tell me more about why you do it like that?” in a gentle, unassuming, curious voice will help them open up. 

Use simple wording
I encourage you to use simple wording, as it also helps put people at ease and reduces the cognitive load of answering a question.  
Don’t worry about using perfect grammar or removing verbal fillers. You may be using a Late Night FM DJ voice, but you aren’t really on the radio. 
For example, “What are your objectives?” is a mentally more complicated question to parse than “So, can you just give me the big picture of what you’re trying to do?”
You can even rephrase after you’ve started. If you find yourself saying “So what are you – could you just tell me more about how your organization uses [this]?”
If you are translating the scripts into another language, this part may require additional care on your part. North American tech culture is generally quite casual compared to other industries and regions, and depending on where you are and who you’re talking to, it may make sense to make your grammar more formal. For example, you may need to use formal pronouns or tenses that imply deference which may not exist in English. Where you can, I encourage you to use the simplest wording possible. 
To help you overcome stilted speech, I suggest doing a few practice interviews.
 Practice Interviewing—No Customers Needed!
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Deploy Empathy
Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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