I work in the field of communications and politics has been an interest of mine since high school. So when I was offered a chance to review Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Using the Power of Questions to Communicate, Connect, and Persuade by Trey Gowdy I quickly grabbed if for my Kindle from NetGalley.
It was a frustrating read. I enjoyed it in many ways but in others ways it was hard to get a handle on. As it does so often, it comes down to expectations and how much you enjoy a blending of genres and topics. There is a lot of good advice about how to argue and communicate, and Gowdy has a light, humorous and engaging style, but the blending of memoir and self-help with a heavy helping of legal and political context undercut the clarity for me.
The publisher’s description was what I had in mind when I started reading:
You do not need to be in a courtroom to advocate for others. You do not need to be in Congress to champion a cause. From the boardroom to the kitchen table, opportunities to make your case abound, and Doesn’t Hurt to Ask shows you how to seize them. By blending gripping case studies from nearly two decades in a courtroom and four terms in national politics with personal stories and practical advice, Trey Gowdy walks you through the tools and the mindset needed to effectively communicate your message.
From this description, and the title and subtitle, it sounds like a book on communication and persuasion. And that is what I was most interested in learning about: “Using the Power of Questions to Communicate, Connect, and Persuade.”
But it might more accurately be titled: “How to argue like a prosecutor.” Most of Gowdy’s approach to communication comes from that perspective; and the book is full of stories of cases he handled and of his experience as a Congressman acting as a prosecutor of sorts.
The connection between persuasion and these cases, however, isn’t always crystal clear or at least wasn’t to me. In other words, translating persuasion from the courtroom and the committee room to the kitchen table isn’t always obvious and intuitive. Perhaps, this is my anti-lawyer bias coming through…The other chunk of the book is memoir; information about Gowdy’s life, relationships and career. And as noted above, Gowdy’s humorous and self-deprecating style makes for easy reading but it wasn’t always clear how the various pieces and parts worked together. Is this a memoir, self-help book, or argument about persuasion? All three mixed together.
That said, much of what Gowdy outlines is worthwhile. The core of his advice is to ask yourself questions about what you are trying to accomplish, who your audience is, what the expectations of your audience is, and how high the bar is set. Knowing the answers to these questions gives you the best chance to be successful. If you don’t have a background in communications or much experience, this is great advice. Thinking these issue through will make a big impact.
He also outlines some strategies for situations of high stakes communications and walks the reader through how asking questions can be used to attack and to defend. But the focus on courts and judicial structures, and on his own life and experience, came at the expense of some clarity and focus in my opinion.
For example, the early sections of the book seem to be applicable to conversations and discussion where both sides are open to learning and new ideas but by the second half the tactics discussed seem much more appropriate to formal debate and presentations or at least arguments about issues. A discussion of the tactics used in, and the challenges of, Congressional hearings might be interesting, for example, but it is not easily connected to dinner table conversations or even boardrooms.
Throughout the book Gowdy makes it clear he is not seeking to make political arguments and that he wants readers from all parts of the spectrum to be able to engage with his ideas. And he is fair and open minded. But I think this book is likely to appeal to readers who are already fans of the former congressman, and are familiar with his career, and share his perspective or background in some way (southern, conservative, Christian).
Gowdy has a good-natured style and tone and, not surprisingly, can be an effective communicator. But as someone who works in communications, I am not sure I would recommend this book to those seeking to get better at persuasion unless they had an interest in politics and/or the law.
If you are a fan of Gowdy you will enjoy this book. If you are interested in learning more about Gowdy you will probably enjoy this book too. If you enjoy learning about politics and the law from someone who has practiced in the field at the highest levels you will enjoy this book.
If your main desire is to get better at communication there are probably better sources.
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