How to Ask Insightful Questions of Medical Thought Leaders
Medical thought leaders (MTLs) are vital to advancing healthcare. You are most likely interested to know where and how they may be shaping a particular field of medicine. Equally important, you may aspire to get them interested in you. To do that, you’ll need to prepare to ask insightful questions.
Think about common scenarios where it is most critical to pose these questions. It may be at a medical conference or some other educational event. It may be a peer-to-peer discussion with someone you aspire to learn from or to become as well-known and highly regarded. It simply could be someone with whom you need to interact as part of your job.
Keep these three things in mind when deciding who and how to approach them:
- Time limitation—You have to get that question out quickly, i.e. in seconds, not minutes.
- MTL interest–Your question should immediately capture the attention of and be interesting to the MTL.
- Future collaboration–If you would like some kind of ongoing interaction or collaboration (such as in research), your question should move the MTL in that direction.
The Moment of Truth.
These situations, especially if you don’t already have an ongoing relationship, are called “Moments of Truth.” This term, coined by the former CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, Jan Carlzon, refers to the various points at which important brand impressions are formed and where there is significant opportunity for good or bad impressions to be made.
When you ask the question, the medical thought leader asks himself or herself:
- Is the intent clear?
- Who is asking the question?
- Is it a question I am able to answer?
- Is it a question I want to answer?
Let’s address ways to satisfy each of these questions, keeping time, interest, and potential in mind.
- Is the Intent Clear?
Take the guesswork out of the question by providing purpose and context. Example:
“One of the challenges in the current guidelines for testing those who may be at high risk of the disease is the lack of epidemiologic data in these populations. What recommendations would you make to health insurers to increase screening efforts of these potential patient populations to lead to earlier diagnosis?”
Beginning with a simple statement as illustrated above provides context for the medical thought leader. The MTL appreciates that he/she doesn’t have to second-guess why you are asking the question, and is better able to provide you with an on-point answer. It also helps with time control, allowing the MTL to be succinct in his/her response.
- Who is Asking the Question?
In a scientific conference, if you are one of those lining up at the microphone in the Q&A session and the MTL doesn’t know you, the MTL will immediately wonder, “Who is this person? And can I trust him/her not to embarrass me?”
Be able to explain quickly who you are in a way that will establish your credibility and basis for asking the question. Take just a few seconds—you don’t need to recite your CV! Simply share one or two aspects about your background that directly convey why you are genuinely interested in the MTL’s answer.
If you have met before, be kind. It is not reasonable nor realistic for the MSL to remember who you are by name or affiliation. Give the same information about yourself as you would if you were new to that MTL. If it will be helpful, you may also consider providing context from a previous meeting. Example:
“Dr. XXX, thank you for that interesting presentation. I am YYY, from ZZZ where I am involved in managing patients with AAA. We met briefly last November at the BBB meeting. I was intrigued by your comment that patients who screen positive for AAA need navigation support to ensure access to further diagnosis, treatment and continuation of care. What from your experience have you found to be the most critical and practical aspects of such patient navigation support?”
Have some statements pre-scripted, so that no matter what the opportunity is, you will be ready to establish your credibility immediately.
Caution: Even in a private, face-to-face meeting, you should not reference a social connection. Never say, “I noticed from Facebook…” or, “I saw you won the tennis doubles last week….” In short, NEVER reference social media. The exception would be a relevant, professional posting, such as through the MTL’s institutional media and when such reference is prompted by the MTL, such as, “You may have seen our institution’s latest newsletter where a related study I am doing was featured.…”
You should never seek to make the MTL wrong, or to correct him/her, particularly in an open forum. Many of us give trust to those we don’t know until they lose it. Then, it is almost impossible to regain it. Others of us distrust right from the start. This is particularly true of MTLs. So let’s say that you have data that may inform a different conclusion than that reached by the MTL. Unless you know the MTL well and unless you are confident that the MTL is also familiar with these data, simply don’t go there.
If you have a chance later, you may consider sending these data to the MTL if they have been published in a credible journal or other format via email. When you do this, your cover email should speak to why the MTL could be interested in this and ask for his/her opinion without declaring your own. Importantly, avoid making your point or asking a question that is seen to be confrontational in any way.
- Is It a Question I am Able to Answer?
Make sure the question you ask is one that the MTL is capable of answering. For example, if you are asking a question about policy, but the MTL is mainly involved in clinical research, think twice. Whatever questions he/she answers should be ones that he/she is able to answer. To do otherwise makes the MTL think you are not prepared because you don’t know that he/she is not the appropriate person to ask. If you are not sure, ask the question as a referral-generating question. Example:
“Dr. XXX, thank you for that interesting presentation. I am YYY, from ZZZ where I am involved in patients with AAA. We met briefly last November at the BBB meeting. I was intrigued by your comment that patients who screen positive for AAA need navigation support to ensure access to further diagnosis, treatment and continuation of care. From your experience, who or what organization is providing such patient navigation support?”
Make sure you only ask one question at a time (no compound questions) and state the question in a way that the MTL should be able to answer as an authority.
- Is It a Question I Want to Answer?
There are three types of questions we may consider asking MTLs:
- Informational—MTLs may be privy to data that you don’t already have access to. For example, you may ask questions to test hypotheses or assumptions, where you are not able to find data or information through publicly available sources. It should be something that the MTL is able to answer based upon his/her own knowledge or experience. Do your homework first—do not waste the MTL’s time asking a question that you should be able to answer on your own. With one poorly-informed question you will have managed not only not impress the MTL, but you are less likely to get a chance to engage with the MTL in the future.
- High-value—the majority of those who would benefit from knowing the answer, may not. Here, the MTL has the opportunity to impart his/her knowledge or experience in a way that will be of high value to you and others. Remember that this question is not necessarily high value to the MTL. The MTL should be interested to answer this high value question if it is viewed by the MTL as part of his/her commitment to educate or to further establish one’s credibility as the thought leader. If there is no such commitment, then he/she is likely spend the minimum time possible answering the question.
- Insightful—the question should be relevant and interesting to the MTL, as well as intrigue the MTL and others who may hear his/her answer. The MTL may even want to share the question with his/her peers in order to gain collective insights. Show that you have done your homework to gather data and connect the dots. Ask this question to see if the MTL considers this a valid insight that may warrant further action, or if there is a gap in knowledge or opportunity that could involve the MTL down the road. It is equally important that the tone and manner should be one of positive, genuine interest in the MTL’s answer; avoid a pointed or argumentative tone. Finally, and most critical, an insightful question should have no wrong answer.
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health instructs field researchers who are interviewing thought leaders to begin with “grand tour” questions that have no wrong answer, yet are directional. They open a dialogue in a non-threatening way, then gradually guide the uncovering of insights and options. Because these questions are forward thinking, they also “get the juices of the MTL going.” Example:
“Dr. XXX, what do you see as the greatest trends and challenges that you will be facing in the coming three to five years, with respect to [disease area]?”
This simple question, followed by gentle probing, not only is most likely to result in gaining deep insights, but also will help to reveal the MTL’s raison d’être. This allows the expert who is most interested in setting trends to let you know which direction he/she is most likely to focus on or want to lead.
A forward-thinking, insightful question may also have the potential to create further access to and collaboration with the MTL. If you can only ask one kind of question, focus on a visualizing one that will lead to the MTL sharing his/her insights, ideas, and plans to lead healthcare into future. That is the ultimate power of truly insightful questions – it is not only for your and the MTL’s benefit, but for the greater benefit of people and patients to come.
MSL and Medical Affairs Managers: Discover your team’s development needs. Take our online Innovara MSL Assessment™, free through the end of February 2017. Email firstname.lastname@example.org (Attn: Renée Morgan) for details.