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We don’t need more answers, we need better questions

Last week The Newspaper Works hosted a panel at Mumbrella360 called The Big Questions. Rob Pyne looks at why questions are actually more important than answers.

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If I had an hour to think about a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” – Einstein

A problem well defined is a problem half solved”- Charles Kettering

Doctors. Lawyers. Journalists. Police. Scientists. They are all very good at asking questions to get to the truth. Would you put the marketing industry in that list?

In my experience, in marketing we spend too much time looking for answers, and not enough time working out what the question is.

Going round in circles

The scene: boardroom of an advertising agency. The directors have just spent an hour talking about how to use social media to promote their business. Should we be on Twitter? What about LinkedIn? Then someone asks: hang on, what’s the question? Why are we considering social media? Silence descends for a moment. Good question.

Let’s say you’re a media owner or an agency person. You may sometimes receive briefs from clients in which their key issue isn’t clear. Someone might brief you to give them a “media first” for example. That’s a bit like just asking your travel agent to book you somewhere no one has ever been before. It might be difficult, expensive, and there might be a reason no-one’s been there. So if you were that travel agent, wouldn’t you be better off asking a few questions to explore the holidaymaker’s brief first to find their underlying needs. Maybe they don’t really need a world first?

In this kind of situation a simple “Why” can do a world of good: “Why do you want a media first?”

8 years’ thinking in half an hour

The scene: a leadership retreat with the directors of a software business. The directors have set aside half an hour to discuss improving the ROI of a major event they run every year, which costs millions. The facilitator introduces the topic and debate starts on how to run it better. Then the facilitator asks, “Let’s take a step back. Why do you run this event?” In the next few minutes, the entire leadership team aligns behind the idea that this event is a representation of company values aimed at staff as well as customers. As such, ROI is only a secondary consideration. The CMO comments, “We’ve just worked out in half an hour what we’ve spent eight years confused by.” The power of a good question…

You may know someone who can do this – turn a meeting on its head by asking the right question at the right time. It’s a powerful skill. Just like Kettering said, once you ask the right question, the problem comes into focus and solutions pop out easily.

What can marketing people learn from doctors, journalists and scientists about how to ask cut-through questions? That’s was the focus of the panel at Mumbrella360 which the Newspaper Works hosted. Two themes emerged.

Be curious. Think like a toddler.

Humans have an innate curiosity. We see it in toddlers questioning their parents and asking why. “Why is grass green?”

Mindshare CEO Katie Rigg-Smith has a passionate belief that in marketing strategy we need to stay curious. We need to get out from behind our desks and go and explore the customer’s world. Hang out in a supermarket for a few hours. This curiosity enables us to generate deeper insights. There is a technique to help you harness your inner toddler – the 5 Whys technique – so called as you keep asking why until you get to the root of a problem.

Katie elaborated that to turn this curiosity into better solutions for clients she asks her team to try and simplify client briefs until they can fit on a beer coaster – she calls it “The Coaster Challenge”. Not only does this lead to better solutions, it also helps align multiple stakeholders – for example when the brand manager, category manager and marketing director have different perspectives on the situation, getting to a beer coaster sized problem definition proves very helpful.

The Newspaper Works CEO Mark Hollands commented that it’s important to have people around you who will challenge you and ask you the tough questions. He credited his agency The Hallway with helping ask the challenging questions which led to the repositioning of Newspaper Media.

One of the key questions the newspaper media asked themselves was, “Who are we?” The insight was that the defining characteristic of newspaper media is influence, which laid the groundwork for the Influential by Nature campaign.

Dial up your EQ (Emotional Quotient) & listening skills.

Neuro psychotherapist Dr. Trisha Stratford revealed her research on the brain: most of the time only half of your brain is listening to what’s being said, so we miss a lot of information. If you can train yourself to observe body language and emotional reactions, you can start to understand what gets someone else excited and use that as a guide to question them about what they want. Dr. Stratford also revealed that good questions carry an emotional component which engages the imaginative brain. That means you should focus on questions which include an element of imagination and emotion. So instead of asking “what’s your marketing objective?” you should ask someone, “Imagine it’s a year’s time and the campaign is a big success, what does that feel like, and why was it a success?’

Award winning Journalist Nick McKenzie built on this idea by revealing how he gets in the listening zone and gets 100% focused on the person he’s talking to, so much so that he doesn’t notice anything else around him.

Citing the importation of illegal drugs, Nick had struggled with why this story wasn’t getting much traction with the Australian public. He had asked himself, “Why don’t people care about this?” and realised that Australians are large consumers of illegal drugs, and so don’t necessarily want to hear about the dark side. This lead to them connecting with Australians by relating drugs stories to personal stories of normal Australians taking drugs.

And Mark Hollands discussed how to manage senior stakeholders by not going to them with solutions to sell. Instead you need to ask them the right questions which allow them to come up with the answers themselves – much like an executive coach does. If you do go to them with an answer, they may feel ambushed, so it’s important to have high EQ when dealing with powerful stakeholders.

Questioning in the world of media and marketing

Next time you receive a brief which asks for a media first, or has 17 different objectives, or has an objective of brand building but will be measured on sales conversions – you’ll save yourself a lot of pain if you step up to the plate and ask some good questions like the ones above. Just make sure you also listen to the answers.

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