As many of you who’ve done Copywriting in Action will know from experience, the Communication Brief is a remarkably effective and reliable vehicle for getting the mind focused and the thinking clear. But harvesting knowledge and insight from general information and hazy answers by information gatekeepers such as clients, customers and focus groups is a skill in itself. This was further reinforced in me during a CWiA online session where the participant was also the client and the subject — spatial information — was highly abstract, at least for me. So I had to ask a lot of questions just to get a grip on the subject let alone identify the problem and determine the key proposition. And the questions had to be carefully formulated to drill down to the kind of answers that give rise to clarity, insight and direction.

After about eleven questions, the participant stopped me in my tracks with this question:

Nicolas how do you know what questions to ask? This is exactly what I need to know to be able to do in my job.

My feeble answer at the time was that you simply keep asking questions until the abstract becomes concrete and the ambiguous becomes explicit. She replied that she had never thought of asking such questions and wanted to know:

How do you formulate these kind of questions?

She is not the first person to interrogate me on this. So this post aims to answer the question in question. And this leads me to Socrates. More specifically, the Socratic Dialogue (the style I used for writing my book, Copywriting in Action).

This form of inquiry is based on asking questions to activate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. The basic form is a series of questions intended to discover the reality, truth and/or perceptions of a subject. It’s exploratory in approach. You not only nail general characteristics but also enable the ‘information gatekeeper’ to discover their own deeper understanding of the subject. Socrates was a master devil’s advocate (and sentenced to death for it in the end) which makes his method inherently adversarial — there is persistence, probing and (sometimes) courage in the act of digging deeper rather than settling for answers at face value. So you’ve got to project a genuine desire to want to know for the benefit of the one being questioned; this usually comes in the form of listening. It helps to be more like a psychotherapist than an investigative journalist.

Socrates’ student and biographer, Plato, described Socrates’ dialogue method as an examination of concepts that seemed to lack any concrete definition. In his time it was on piety, wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. The result was a realisation by participants that what seems is not always so. Now it is very important for the questioner to remain, as Socrates himself professed to be, ignorant. In your humble ignorance, you’re asking questions to someone who has the knowledge (even if they don’t think they do). According to Plato, Socrates believed that his awareness of his own ignorance made him wiser than those who, though ignorant, still claimed knowledge. This unpretentious attitude not only makes your client, customer or focus group feel at ease, but also allows you to recognise the errors in your own assumed knowledge. You’re free to roam and explore without the baggage of self-importance. The aim is to bring stakeholders together in constructing meaning and arriving at a right answer and a direction forward.

So, how does the Socratic Dialogue work? There are three types of questions to prepare:

1. Opening questions generate discussion at the beginning of the dialogue in order to elicit dominant themes.

In my experience, the answers are often fairly general, but they give you the opportunity to formulate these kind of questions:

‘What do you mean by [insert abstract idea]?’

‘Can you be more specific about [insert the ambiguity]’

‘Can you explain that to me like I was a 4-year-old?’ (courtesy of Denzel Washington in the film Philadephia)

As the information gatekeeper goes into more detail, you then direct them along the way with guiding questions:

2. Guiding questions deepen and elaborate the discussion, keep contributions on topic and encourage consideration for others.

‘What does this look like?’

‘Can you unpack this into the parts that make up the whole?’

‘That’s interesting, can you elaborate more on this?’

The information gatekeeper’s answers will eventually gain you enough authority on the subject that you can now wrap up with some solid closing questions:

3. Closing questions allow participants to summarise their thoughts and personalise what they’ve discussed.

‘So would it be true to say that [insert discovery]?’

‘Would you agree that [insert insight]?’

‘Can we then make the conclusion that [insert conclusion]?’

The summary of the knowledge and insight can then be transcribed into a Communication Brief — the tool that brings everybody onto the same page (figuratively and literally) before a project begins. Just make sure you write a rough draft of the CommBrief during question time, so all stakeholders feel part of the process. Which leads me to the conclusion that perhaps the most important outcome of the Socratic Dialogue mode of communication is the bonding process. Everybody involved gets to go on an exploratory journey in which they share their discoveries and document it into the Communication Brief.

All of which means you won’t be sentenced to death like the man with all the questions, Socrates.

Bon Comm.



  1. Melissa says:

    I really liked this article and there’s some great questions in here to help me formulate the comms brief.
    I also agree with Liam, I enjoyed how the book drilled down and kept asking questions for the Yonjai Spa products brief.

  2. Liam says:

    The Socratic Dialogue in the text book was a very good help in understanding why the content that was produced for the Yonjai Spa products was there. By breaking down the process of formulating it and delving further than what might have first appeared to be the answer, I feel as though I learnt a lot more than I would have by simply reading a body of text that went straight to the correct copy.

  3. Christopher says:

    I think it’s harder than I think to just ask people what they want.
    They probably don’t really know.
    I can use these questions to help my prospective customers define and clarify what they want, while I understand what I need to be targetting

    • When “interviewing” a client, it’s best practice to get them speaking and through clear listening guide them to reveal knowledge and insight that will inform your strategic and creative approach. Socrates had this down to a fine art.

  4. Mel says:

    Thinking of these three types of questions in such defined and structured way I can already see that when I’m information gathering I normally mix them up constantly, which is not the right approach. This normally leads to making assumptions far too early in the piece, and therefore missing key information – i.e. the ‘seems to be’ as opposed to what actually is…

  5. Elena Callipari says:

    Excellent snapshot Nicolas. Easy to pin on the board and refer to. Often I make assumptions about content based on conceptual wisdom. I’ve been caught out in the past. You cannever truly know the details without unpacking it all through questions and answers that gather the right information.

  6. I wish I had read this before my last contract! This approach to questioning combined with the Communications Brief provides a structure for inquiry that is inclusive and clear. In pressure writing briefs it can be difficult to get the right information and the right focus at the starting point. In my next brief I will use this approach. Many thanks.

  7. sacha martini says:

    Thanks for the tips I will definitely use opening, guiding and closing questions in my next brief session.

  8. Simon Carr says:

    This structure of asking questions would make it so much easier to listen, as the answers you get will be relevant to the information you need.

  9. Ben Cullen says:

    I always worry about asking the right questions in my line of work, and find myself leaving a briefing session wishing I’d asked the right questions – realising later that I didn’t. I’ll keep this article in mind for next time.

  10. Alex D says:

    Learning how to ask the right questions or phrase your questions in a way that extracts the most relevant information is a challenge, as is eliminating bias and subjectivity. This article addresses this challenge in a useful way. I’ll be referring back to this quite a bit for my Communication Brief.

  11. Ken says:

    Many shared concepts to those utilised “Spin Selling.”

  12. Jessie L says:

    I completely agree with your comment relating to having a genuine desire to want to know for the benefit of the other person, to listen carefully to not only what is being said but the silences and what is not being said. In both my professional and personal life I have been in situations where I have sat and listened to a person wholeheartedly without any preconceived idea of how a conversation should end up, and intuitively asked the question that has unlocked the issue.

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