Open answers and “stump the analyst”

As an expert, you should almost always have an answer to clients’ questions. And you should also be ready to acknowledge when you might be wrong. You must develop the skill of “open answers.”

Playing “stump the analyst”

When I was a technology analyst at Forrester, clients expected me to be answer any question within shouting distance of my area of expertise, which at the time was the impact of changes in technology on the television industry.

A typical client session would have me visiting a company, which could be a major media company, a technology vendor, or a startup, and presenting my talk on the state of the industry, customized for presentation to that audience. The audience often included the most senior executives at such companies. I presented to the CEOs or presidents at companies including ABC, Cablevision, Clear Channel, Comcast, Hearst, Lenovo, Lifetime, LG, Microsoft, NBC, Phillips, Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Paramount, Time-Warner, Viacom, and many others.

At the conclusion of the formal presentation, inevitably, there began a round of questions I started to call “stump the analyst.” These questions included natural extensions of the topics I’d covered as well as questions about my opinions about new technologies that were just emerging.

If a question was truly out of range of my coverage (for example, “Who will win the Emmy this year?”), I’d say so. But if the question was in some way related to what I’d discussed (“What will this do to advertising rates?”, “Will this change the profitability of the cable industry?”, “What would happen if the writers and actors went on strike?”), the audience expected me to have an answer.

It was, of course, impossible for me to know everything. So my answer would be something like, “Based on what I know of the industry, this is what seems likely. But there could be other factors that I haven’t researched yet. Why do you ask, and what do you think?”

At this point, the client and I would often get into a productive discussion. I gave them what they wanted, which was not a definitive answer, but an intelligent consideration of the factors that would affect that answer. And they also helped me, by showing where some of the thinking in the industry was going, and pointing out new directions for research.

This is what I mean by an “open answer.” It is an answer that allows room for discussion. And when you aren’t certain of the actual answer, an open answer is the best way to make everyone smarter.

How this applies to my work as an editor

As an editor working with intelligent authors, I field many questions about writing and content. Often, I know the one right answer, such as whether a piece of writing is a sentence fragment and whether that needs fixing.

I also take the educational part of my job seriously. When I feel I know the answer but it may not be clear where my decision is coming from, I provide reasons for the edits I make. This allows the writer to determine what the problem is and whether my fix is best, or whether they may come up with a better way to address the problem.

But sometimes, I need to address issues with no clear answer.

As I learned at Forrester, I always try to deliver my best possible answer anyway, based on my experience. I explain my reasoning and invite further discussion. Typically, the author and I come to some sort of reasonable conclusions based on this discussion.

And as with “stump the analyst,” these type of open answers make both me and the writer smarter.

Any expert can try to pretend they know everything. Of course, they don’t. But more important, being a know-it-all is boring and arrogant. True experts don’t have to know everything. Instead, they know and embrace the power of open answers.

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