Anyone who’s spent time with a toddler is familiar with their power of interrogation. Once the “what” has been determined — be it a device or a dinosaur — the “hows” begin, followed by an avalanche of “whys.” And in that instant, the authority of our expertise is chipped away as we struggle to describe the inner workings of wi-fi or the reasons behind a spiked tail. The little inquisitors quickly recognize just how many gaps there are in our so-called knowledge, and their own curiosity floods in to fill the cracks.
There’s a good reason for this: kids are hungry for information. Once they realize they’re expected to make decisions in this world about things they haven’t the foggiest idea of, they can’t get enough of it. A three-year-old can become an expert on the Loch Ness Monster within a week.
But somewhere between discovering volcanoes for the first time and sitting through the third conference call of the day, we lose that hunger. It’s a shame. And in our business, it’s a particular deficiency.
Curiosity is the fastest route from outsider to partner. Beyond courtesy, beyond charm, beyond “living the brand,” I’ve found the most valuable conversations are driven by sharp, sometimes uncomfortable, questions. From a creative perspective, the concepts that spark the most curiosity in you will often do the same for your audience. Those are the threads that deserve to be pulled.
Decades of clinical research (and millennia of casual research) have shown that most conversations have two main goals: learning and liking. In other words, the goal is either exchanging information with others or managing others’ impressions of ourselves. Agency professionals must do both simultaneously.
I was once trained to approach each project with childlike naivety. Not a bad piece of advice, but one that ignores an advantage from our adult toolbox: skepticism. I cannot stress this enough: we do not need to drink the Kool-Aid to do good work (unless of course your client is Kool-Aid, in which case enjoy the free samples). Challenging assumptions is the very first thing your audience will do when they hear your pitch, so go ahead and do that work for them before you go to market. Just like the proverbial child discovering that adults don’t have all the answers, we should try our very best to poke holes in the plan, then fill them with new solutions.
But how do you find where to poke? Here are a few suggestions for asking sharper, more strategic questions:
Use the right sequence for the right goal.
The order of your interrogation can be a key to its outcomes. Looking for a breakthrough? Ask uncomfortable or high-stakes questions first. Psychological studies have shown that by leading with the tough asks and following up with the easier ones, you’ll get a more honest answer from the former, and richer, more nuanced answers from the latter. Are you focused on building a relationship? Then flip it, leading with the gentler inquiries, then using the answers gained to build up to the tough questions. It’s a small way of showing clients that you’re getting better and better at being their partner.
Keep it open.
Even in the driest, most clinical brief, questions shouldn’t simply be check-boxes of “yes” or “no.” People tend to answer the question within the parameters given — and when given a box, we gladly stay inside it. In one study where parents were asked what they thought was “the most important thing for children to prepare them in life,” 60 per cent chose “to think for themselves” from a list of multiple-choice options. But when it was asked as an open-ended question, only about five per cent spontaneously came up with a similar answer.
Leave no answers behind.
No response is so complete and information-laden that it ends the thread right there. Always ask a follow-up. This is one of those times where you balance the learning and the liking: not only will you get better, more contextual, information but it’s proven that follow-up questions deepen the relationship between conversant. This means being willing to stray off the beaten path of your prepared questions or into the margins of your brief.
Read the room.
The presence of others affects the answers we give. In a group setting, we tend to be guarded, prioritizing how we appear to others over giving the most in-depth response. But when we can see others opening up, we follow suit. We’re nearly 30 per cent more likely to reveal potentially sensitive information once we know others are forthcoming. In a workshop or brainstorm, begin by drawing out uncomfortable answers from one person so the others will follow. There’s also a funny dynamic at play here: participants in a conversation tend to like the questioner more, while observers of a conversation tend to favour the people answering. Recognizing this can help you reach that balance between “liking” and “learning” as you facilitate an information session with clients.
None of this is groundbreaking, but I’ve learned that remembering these fundamentals in the moment pays dividends for any project down the line. In a time when “innovation” and “lateral thinking” are so prized, curiosity is what will actually lead you to them. We’re often told to embrace our inner child for our happiness and mental health. Sure. But don’t forget to put that inner child to work while you’re at it.