The Question That Drips Danger

Paul Talbot Copywriting


Twenty-five years ago, when I was a sales manager, I would sit in my office and occasionally bellow out, “No.”

This happened when I overhead a salesperson working the phones ask a prospect a question that could be answered with a “No.”

It wasn’t long before this running joke meant I wasn’t shouting “No” anymore.

So I couldn’t help but smile the other day when one of my clients shouted out his own “No.”

The copy I wrote for him asked the reader, “Is this something the people on your list will benefit from knowing about?”

My client’s reaction…

“Never ask a question that could be answered with a ‘No’ (Ends the conversation) At least get them to think, ‘maybe’.”

Naturally, my client is correct.  And I knew better.  But because I was trying to qualify the prospect, something inappropriate tugged me off base.  If the prospect answered with a “No,” that meant less wasted time for my client.

In retrospect, the job of qualifying the prospect was not mine.  It was my client’s.  My job was to ignite curiosity and to channel interest into response so that a qualification conversation could take place.

Over the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on the job of the question, revisiting the copywriting classics.

When Max Sackheim used a question as a headline in the longest-running direct response ad of all time, he gave it a brilliant twist.

“Do You Make These Mistakes In English?”

This question could be answered with a no.  But not before the reader is lured into the copy to find out what the mistakes are.  It’s the word “these” that creates and upgrades the intrigue of this question.

John Caples took a different approach when he asked questions in “They Laughed When I Sat Down At The Piano.”  He posed a question and then answered it, creating his own dialogue with the reader.

A half-century after the Caples ad, Eugene Schwartz turned the question inside out when asked the reader, “Sound impossible?”  Then, in the next sentence, Schwartz took the reader directly into a proof statement to support the claim.

Sackheim, Caples, and Schwartz knew how to ask a question.  And they each used questions sparingly, aware of the risks that accompany their rewards.

My own reward came from a thoughtful client.

He sent me off on a fresh exploration of the mechanics, the structure, and the persuasive power of a well-posed question.