How to talk so people will talk: use their words and pronunciation... even when it's wrong

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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 the last issue, I combined two separate topics, and it only occurred to me later:
  • Accepting a person’s worldview, and
  • Accepting their misnamings/mispronunciations
I want to dive more into that second one, because it’s small but so critical for getting someone to open up to you.
Let’s return to the example about asking someone about how they built a website, and imagine they said:
You: “What tools did you use to build your website?”
User: “I used Laravel for the backend and Tailwind for the frontend.”
If you’re familiar with Laravel, you probably read that in your head as “lair-uh-vel” or “lair-uh-vul.”
But let’s say they didn’t say lair-uh-vel, and instead put them emphasis on the wrong syllables, say said… LAH-rav-EL.
Now let’s say this is our follow-up question:
You: “Was it your first time using Laravel?“
Do you say lair-uh-vel as you’ve always sad, or LAH-rav-EL as they’ve just said?
As weird as this may seem, you should intentionally mispronounce Laravel to match their pronunciation. Don’t make a big show of it – simply use their pronunciation.
(This doesn’t mean you need to match their drawl or accent. If they pronounce it "lahr-vil” with a drawl, don’t pick up their drawl, as that could come across as mocking.)
If you pronounce it differently – correctly – they will pick up on that correction, and it will reduce them to a lesser role in the conversation. Our goal of the interview is to effectively put them in the role of teacher – they are teaching us about how they view things. The point of the interview is not teaching them pronunciation, and correcting their pronunciation or word choice shatters that illusion. It shifts them into trying to impress or appease us, whereas we just want their unvarnished view.
This applies even when it’s something that is gratingly or even offensively wrong to us.
For example, in the US, the way people from “Nevada” and “Colorado” pronounce their states’ names is different than the way people from other regions usually do. If you’re from Nevada and are interviewing people about their experiences going to conferences in Vegas, and someone says “When I first landed in Nev-AH-da”, you can’t then phrase your next question with “Ne-VAD-uh,” even though that is correct to you.
This goes if they get a brand or product name wrong, too. If you’re asking someone about how they tell people about new products for their Shopify store and they mention using “MailMonkey” rather than MailChimp, well… I think you can guess by now what you’re supposed to do.

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Deploy Empathy @mjwhansen

A practical guide to interviewing customers

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