Secret Marketer: Focus less on having all the answers and more on asking the right questions

The secret to uncovering actionable insight is knowing how to ask a sincere, enquiring question – not trying to have preconceived answers to everything.

The recent Euro 2016 football tournament saw a host of post-match press conferences, asking questions of managers and players straight off the pitch. The sheer ubiquity of the question that begins with “Talk about…” was mind-numbing. “Talk about your team’s performance/that last goal/what it means to you.” I had started noticing this non-question based on some sports journalists who were critiquing other journalists and their inane approach. In essence, reporters use “Talk about…” to cover up for not having watched the game properly, possibly because they were too busy tweeting.

The issue of asking the correct question has become even more pertinent to me recently, as I’m sifting through lots of different views and opinions to create a new marketing plan for a product out of my comfort zone. This resulted in sitting down and engaging internally with a bunch of non-marketing people not familiar with the language of marketing. The experience has given me a new-found appreciation of the ability to ask great questions. Just like the journalists at the sports game, I realised I did not have the correct questions, so how was I possibly going to get the correct answers?

There are few things more powerful than a great question. Just ask Jeremy Paxman. There are questions some people are very well known for, such as US venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, and his interview question: “Tell me something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.” As kids, we ask lots of questions. We all know bosses and colleagues whose entire sense of security and self-image depends on having all the answers to any question you ask them. We have all been there when somebody has asked the question not because they want to know the answer but because they are trying to catch you out or force you into agreeing with their point of view.

Here is what I have had to learn in the last few weeks: asking good questions is a real skill. We are all focused on answers, whereas the ability to ask genuine questions, with a desire to know the answer and without a preconceived idea of what the answer will be, is paramount to getting real insight. Realise that it is better to be able to ask a great question than think you have all the answers. Developing a great question is important because it’s hard for our minds to ignore a question, and it opens a dialogue and a door to enquiry – even if you don’t get the definitive answer.

Being a great questioner can make the job more fun, and the activity of being engaged in the conversation around a great question sets you apart with customers and colleagues as most people are surprised that somebody is actually interested in their opinion. Next time you are sitting across the desk with pad and paper in hand, ready to drill down, think about starting with a great question. And definitely don’t start with “Talk about…”.

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