Lessons from Hollywood on the power of asking questions

Guide

Andy Williams

A father of two grown-up daughters, a cyclist, an activist and a serial volunteer, Andy is most intrigued by what makes you tick. He’s also co-MD of Cohesive.

Most of us are finding our feet again now that the world has changed. We need to find a way to reconnect, communicate, and plan for a future on shifting sands. Whether it’s rediscovering your ‘why’, planning for change or developing a new marketing/sales/recruitment strategy, one of the best ways to take action is to do something simple. Ask questions and listen.


Hollywood producer Brian Grazer –  think Splash, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Rush – tells a lovely story of how he learned to thrive in one of the world’s most competitive environments. As a dyslexic child he suffered with crippling social anxiety brought on by early classroom experiences. Having totally mastered the art of avoiding uncomfortable or challenging conversations, his young creative mind realised that he also intuitively understood how to start them. How someone could reach out in a non-threatening way to a person like himself. 

"Life isn’t about finding the answers, it’s about asking the questions."

Brian Grazer

It’s important to make the person feel secure and, if you’re face-to-face, a gentle smile and steady eye contact are great openers. Brian’s first words are usually to greet the person, and stand with them on their own turf. Something like: Hi, I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I’ve just read your article and it reminded me of… . So far, so schmoozy, maybe. The clincher though is the question, and it’s always about the other person: I was wondering –  what gave you the idea for the storyline? 

He’s lost count of the number of five minute conversations that turned into one hour discussions. He started with his college professors, and then as a clerk at Warner Brothers he picked the brains of famous directors, writers and actors. His interest is in the other persons’ achievements, insights, experiences. It’s a golden rule of Brian’s never to ask for or offer favours in those conversations. Make it simply a generous meeting of minds. 

Curiosity about the world and particularly about other people allows us to meet the fundamental human need for connection. And connections allow collaborations. In Brian’s experience, the instinct and ability to collaborate is much more powerful than the urge to control, protect and dominate. In his view it’s the most curious – not the most competitive – business that wins. 

If you’re really interested in your employees – you’ll ask them questions and listen closely to the answers. If you’re really interested in your customers, stakeholders, communities, you’ll ask them what they know, not tell them what you think.

When to go on a voyage of discovery

In a perfect world we’d always be communicating with employees, trustees, clients and communities. But it’s often not like that. Life happens, business speeds up, events overtake you and then months have gone by without you checking in to find out what those stakeholders really think and feel about what it is that you’re doing.  

There are some times when asking questions as part of a discovery process is invaluable. If you’re preparing for change, or you’ve hit a block in the change process. If you’re looking at your brand messaging or marketing strategy. If you’re looking at your recruitment or retention strategy….the list goes on. Asking good questions of the right people will help you.

Basically, any time when it would be useful to have a big picture view of how you’re perceived – plus a heap of detailed insights  – is a good time. And anytime when shifting your own perspective so that you can better take account of the people you serve, is a good time. 

What you’ll get back is some nice truths and home truths. Familiar and unfamiliar perspectives. A mirror held up to the limits in your thinking, gaps in your knowledge and bias in your assumptions and judgement. 

Here’s how we run our Discover process – in 5 steps

We have our own questioning process – Discover –  at Cohesive. It’s often the first step we take with new clients, and the insights we glean help us to ground the purposeful PR and content strategies that we create. 

We organise conversations with stakeholders – investors, employees, collaborators, customers or clients – asking challenging questions, gently. We help them slip out of their professional armour for a while, just one human talking to another. That happens quite naturally when you ask people about their perspectives, concerns and experiences, and listen actively. 

We find that the most thought-provoking and insightful conversations happen with people who are outside of your business, looking in. But not exclusively. 

From those conversations come insights that can rekindle your purpose. They will evidence the difference that you already make, and may shape new ambitions. Expect them to change your whole posture on how to engage with the people you’d most value working with. 

It’s a powerful piece of work. If you want to try it out, here’s how to do it for yourself. 

1 Be in your right mind

This is perhaps the hardest part of any DIY Discover process. Set aside what you think you know, and start with a beginner’s mind. From that perspective, there can only be good answers. Ask that searching question with genuine curiosity, listen carefully, and be open to every answer.

2. Reflect the rainbow

A lens focuses light tightly, whereas a prism spreads it into component colours. It’s the prism we need right now. Select a panel of people representing the broadest possible spectrum of perspectives and experiences of your business. Salespeople and customer champions make good internal candidates. Bear in mind that there will come a time to speak truth to power: involve peers and managers early, is our advice.

10 good conversations can take you a long way.

3. Hold that conversation

Use the suggestions below and the other resources we’ve shared to give yourself a consistent set of questions to riff around. You’re asking people for 30 minutes of their time, for which they won’t need to do any preparation. Tell them that their commentary will be anonymous unless they want to go ‘on the record’. 

In our experience an audio-only conversation produces honesty and intimacy with the minimum of distraction. With permission, record it so you can listen rather than take notes. Zoom, Teams and other tools are great for this.

4. Do the analysis

Get your recordings transcribed. You’ll have a lot of material, and there’s no real option but to spend time with it. The value of consistent questioning is that it ought to make patterns and anomalies easy to spot. Look for:

  • The best examples of the actual difference you’re making and therefore the value you’re adding. Is there a pattern?
  • How your customers describe that difference or value. What language do they use and what can you learn from it?
  • The values (or ethics) your people are displaying to your customers. How do customers describe them?
  • The concerns and careabouts of the real people, behind the job title
  • Specific quotes or examples that summarise the insights you’re discovering

5. Getting to outcomes

Describe all and every insight that moves you closer to answering these questions:

  • Why do we do what we do? In what way do we change our customers worlds? How do the benefits of the products and services we provide come together to bring higher value?
  • How do we do what we do? What are the ingredients for our recipe? What contribution do our values or ethics make in this recipe?
  • Who do we do this for? What makes them tick, and where does our affinity with those people come from? Which of their greatest careabouts do we have answers for, or empathy with? 

These insights can release you from the trap of what you do. They can elevate you above newest, bestest, fastest, mostest, cheapest to create an enduring message and USP.

How to use it

The insight you’ve gained should power purposeful messaging that reflects the real difference that you’re making and the values you’re upholding – built on reliable evidence. It will sculpt powerful personas and pinpoint your content sweet spot as part of a broader content strategy. You’ll return to over and over for insight

“I’ve used it for content strategy and to help steer businesses and charities through the change process. I’ve used it to help businesses streamline their services.  And pretty much every branding and communications project I work on kicks off with asking questions of clients and customers so that you can communicate with an outside-in view.

It’s a powerful, flexible and old school way of doing things. Pick up the phone and start a conversation. You don’t need fancy tech. It’s just two people talking.  Asking good questions and listening is so useful.  You can get big picture data on how your people feel through surveys, but the real power is in the richness of detail you get from talking. And from reflecting back what you’ve heard.

The process gives you evidence, which is great for building consensus inside teams, and inspiration – you’ll get a heap of insights and ideas.”   Sharon Tanton

Good questions to ask

You want to ask open ended questions that encourage people to talk freely. Questions that encourage interviewees to talk about the challenges they face are always useful. ‘And how do you feel about that?’ is a good follow on question to ask. 

Questions that tap into origin stories lead to some interesting places. Just like Brian’s initial ‘tell me where you got your idea’ question opens the door to some really good stories, so does ‘what would you most like to change?’ and ‘what inspired you to set up your business’.

If you’re asking questions to help you uncover a more purposeful USP, a handy way to do it is to ask ‘how would you describe us to a colleague?’ and ‘what’s the difference that we make?’ or even ‘why does the world need us?’ 

Questions around vision and ambition tend to be fruitful. If you’re looking to nail your sweet spot, you want to find the place where it intersects with what your clients or customers want to see too. If ‘what’s your vision for your organisation?’ sounds too lofty, try asking ‘what would you like to happen?’ or ‘If everything goes according to plan, where will we be this time next year/in five years time?’

If you’re asking questions as part of an internal change process, you might want to focus particularly on positive questions. More ‘what are we getting right, how can we help you to achieve more, what’s the best thing we do for our customers?’ If you’re looking for good ideas and insights to build on, seed positive questions at the very beginning.

Questions like, ‘what three words would you use to describe…’ always throw up some interesting answers. Likewise ‘when should people get in touch with us?’ often captures a wonderfully customer focused phrase that describes the problem you solve for people. 

Last word from Brian

Everybody has a story to tell. Everyone loves being asked questions, and that includes those closest to you. Life isn’t about finding the answers. It’s about asking the questions. 

Resources

A Discover questionnaire

‘A Curious Mind’ – Brian Glazer

‘The Book of Beautiful Questions’ The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead – Warren Berger

Valuable Content Marketing: How to Make Quality Content The Key To Your Success – Sharon Tanton and Sonja Jefferson

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What do you think?

Comments

    Manuela

    Great article. Nothing worst to make wrong assumption but sometimes I feel we are afraid to ask. To discover the true which might not be comfortable or fear from a “stupid question”.

      deckchair

      Hi Manuela,

      Too true. Next time you’re in a group discussing a novel idea or topic just say: I’m the newbie here, and I’ll be asking all the stupid questions. You’ll be releasing everyone in the room from ‘the curse of knowledge’ and their smiles will show their relief.

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