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.