Rethinking the question brings better answers

Marketers and journalists alike can get better results by carefully thinking about the questions they ask – not just the answers they are seeking, a panel hosted by X or Y Decisions’ Rob Pyne has concluded.

Whether getting out from behind the desk to observe consumer behaviour or getting sources onside to unearth powerful news, empathy, intuition and active listening are all vital traits to success according to The Big Questions panel at Mumbrella 360 in Sydney.

The panel, supported by The Newspaper Works, Mindshare chief executive Katie Rigg-Smith, The Age investigative reporter Nick McKenzie, neuro-psychotherapist Dr Trisha Stratford and The Newspaper Works chief executive Mark Hollands.

Thinking differently about how to approach problems was the key message from experiences across each member of the panel.

“We need to get away from our desk to be curious about the right questions to ask,” Katie Rigg-Smith said.

She cited one client, Michelin, that began with the obvious question: how to sell more tyres?

“But their tyres were actually so good that they ended up reframing their questioning to, how do we get people driving more ?” she explained. The results – with consumers encouraged to take driving tours, making good use of their tyres – was a success that would not have come from conventional lines of inquiry between agencies and clients.

Journalists, meanwhile, are “hopeless at a really key question,” investigative reporter Nick McKenzie told the panel. “That is: why aren’t consumers connecting with our content?”

This led to a bigger question which drives McKenzie’s journalism.

“If we’re not connecting to our audience, or asking why we’re not, we’re not learning,” McKenzie said, citing how stories about organised crime, particularly drug importing, weren’t getting the expected engagement from readers.

“I only recently asked why,” he said. “The answer? Australians are great consumers of drugs.

“The concept of a drug user at a party is very familiar – and that’s the key thing we want to communicate: personal stories.

“Let’s ask why people are [taking drugs], come at it from a different angle and report on it differently; ask, how can I personalise this?”

Dr Trisha Stratford pointed out that emotional engagement was crucial in all lines of questioning, in and out of the office.

“You need to ask curious questions to keep the pre-frontal cortex engaged – the part of the brain responsible for analysis and abstract thinking,” she said.

“And your question needs to contain emotion to engage them. If we don’t have an emotional element to the question, the brain goes to sleep.”

These emotional elements frequently come into play in the corporate world. Stakeholder management is a constant and delicate responsibility for Mark Hollands, who is part board of newspaper publisher executives from News Corp Australia, Fairfax Media, APN News & Media and West Australian Newspapers.

“When you come into a meeting between chief executives, it’s not about asking too many questions but sometimes just one,” Mr Hollands told the panel.

“If you try to force something, that can bring issues to a head or to an end faster – and in a way you might feel hasn’t covered the conversation accurately. That’s not a reflection of the board but of me as a CEO.

“Open questions are a must – ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions and you get ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”

The seed for The Newspaper Works’ new brand campaign, Influential By Nature, was planted when Mr Hollands was asked a big question himself.

“‘What do we stand for?’” he said. “I’d never really thought about it before.

“It was fascinating how many people across the industry had different views…ultimately, we’re not about data – we’re about quality journalism.”

McKenzie’s strategy behind his investigative successes involved asking questions of his sources the right way.

“If I challenge them the right way…often you bow to their greatness, flatter them – it’s helpful being young – and they may drop their guard and tell you something they may not otherwise.”

The key way McKenzie gets people to talk to him is by earning their trust. “From whistleblowers to people whose families have been murdered, brothel keepers, cops; you spend enough time with them that they feel comfortable.”

Dr Stratford said the emotion, not just the content of what people say, was vital to asking questions the right way.

“Listen to yourself in that way too,” she said. “When you’re going to question someone, how you’re feeling affects their intuition.”

“Perhaps we don’t do enough of this between agencies and clients, too – open questioning, showing empathy, rather than just charging in to find solutions,” Mr Pyne suggested.

Mumbrella 360 concluded yesterday at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney.

For more news from The Newspaper Works, click here.

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