Do you smoke marijuana?
About 10 years ago, I asked that question of billionaire insurance mogul Peter Lewis as part of Time magazine’s coverage of the pro-pot movement. Along with George Soros and John Sperling, Lewis has been a major supporter of various marijuana legalization efforts across the country.
Unruffled and seeming to have anticipated the query, Lewis said he smokes pot “regularly”.
I pressed him for more specifics. “Does that mean daily?” I asked.
Though he responded at length to other questions, he politely declined to elaborate on just what “regularly” meant. Sometimes, when you’re in the reporter’s primal hunting-and-gathering mode, all you can do is try.
The resulting story, by Joel Stein with support from me and others, made the magazine cover: The Politics of Pot: CAN IT GO LEGIT?
(To see how Lewis parried another journalist’s inquiries, check out this piece, A pot-loving billionaire joins the Giving Pledge, at Fortune.com.)
The same principle of being tenacious applies to publicists representing individuals or organizations. For your clients’ sake, you’ve got to ask them the tough questions–first, so that you have clarity on the truth and second, so that you can help them prepare how they will answer those difficult queries when they are posed by members of the media.
Sometimes, too, we might let our trail of questioning go cold without realizing we’re on the trail in the first place.
Here is why: Folks have the darnedest habit of using quantitative terms that are disguised as humdrum everyday words. I call these near-numerical buggers “cuties,” in recognition of the QT abbreviation of “quantitative terms.”
Occasionally, people actively seek out the cutie costume. Usually, though, it’s simply a matter of the way we normally communicate. All right, I’m being mathematically mischievous—go back and catch the three “cuties” in the last two sentences.
Find them? If not, you might catch them in this partial listing compiled now to help you spot the garments they wear:
Consistently, constantly, conventionally, customarily, frequently, habitually, incessantly, increasingly, infrequently, intermittently, mostly, normally, occasionally, oftentimes, periodically, regularly, religiously, repeatedly, routinely, seasonally, sporadically, traditionally, typically, usually.
OK, enough: two dozen cuties ought to be enough to convey the point.
When you are in the semantic/numeric trenches and encounter these or similar cuties, you have three choices:
1. Make a mental or written note of the cutie, and be sure to get back to it.
Don’t feel like you have to confront the person immediately. In many cases, capturing the detail simply is not important enough to warrant breaking up the momentum of your interview. Let it wait. Besides, you may get the specifics you seek if you simply allow the conversation to flow a bit longer.
Other times, you may need to pose your question like Columbo, the 1970s TV detective played by Peter Falk. As he was walking away from questioning a suspect, the rumpled investigator would stop and announce, “Just one more thing…”
Then, with the suspect’s guard down, Columbo would pose the critical query that helped crack the case.
Another effective way of building momentum, without losing track of a key point, is to make a note of all the loose ends and then take them on one-by-one. Among the very best at following, and teaching, this principle is Dave Severn, a renowned leader with World Wide DreamBuilders (WWDB) in growing strong organizations of Amway Independent Business Owners.
Interviewing isn’t always this cat-and-mouse, but there may be occasions where you don’t want to reveal just how much you want to gather certain details.
2. Get a clarification right away.
Because the person you are speaking with may be prone to ducking into other tangents at a rapid clip, there will be times when you want to zero in on the cutie and draw them out.
Prompt them with some quantitative parameters. If they say something occurs “frequently” or “occasionally,” then offer a range of numbers per day, week, month, year or whatever is appropriate.
If they say “a couple” or “a few” or “several,” try to steer it toward a specific number or range of numbers. And if your efforts irk them, let them know without those specifics, you won’t be able to serve them nearly as well as you could.
3. Don’t sweat it.
Simply jot down the word that is offered and move on. Sometimes, it’s just not that vital a point. The key is to exercise this option with confidence. And in order to gain that level of assurance, you will want to hone your judgment in knowing when to pursue either of the other two options.
And just one more thing: develop your techniques regularly.
This column is adapted from a Go Figure: Making Numbers Count column that I originally wrote in 2003.