How marketers can ask the right questions and influence better business decisions

James O'Brien, Harry Davies / October 2019

Asking better questions is key to changing minds – including, occasionally, your own. Here, LBC presenter James O’Brien explains what he’s learned about asking people to reassess their opinions – and Google Head of Measurement and Analytics Harry Davies gives a checklist for examining any brand’s business assumptions.

As host of my LBC radio show, I am constantly in debt to the people I talk to. Even with the most meticulous planning, there is always the magic that comes from spontaneity, and from that absolute inability to know what on earth is going to happen next.

As much as the people themselves make my experiences so varied, so too do their opinions. And the only way you get to these opinions, to be able to truly understand them, is by asking the right questions. Over the past 15 years, I’ve discovered that there are best-practice ways to ask the right questions – something that’s not only relevant for a radio talk show, but for anyone trying to communicate better in our increasingly complex world. Here’s what I’ve learned about how everyone can have more productive conversations.

Start by accepting that you might be wrong. Of course, accepting the possibility that you haven’t got everything figured out isn’t easy – but it can also be the path to a more productive conversation. Make a habit of beginning any discussion by at least internally embracing the idea that you might be in the wrong, and asking the other person for their perspective. Once you start tugging on those threads and trying to work out why you – or the other person – thinks the things that they think, you not only increase the chances of learning something, you actually increase the chances of proper communication. You improve the chances of a meaningful, mutually beneficial exchange between two previously disagreeing parties.

Even if you’re talking to somebody whose opinion you disagree with, rather than repeating your own opinion you can learn something by exploring the intricacies and the foundations of theirs.

The takeaway: Don’t go into any discussion assuming that you’ve got everything figured out. There’s a reason the other person thinks the way they do, and by respecting that you’re more likely to have a productive discussion with them.

Remember that what people think isn’t as important as why they think it. Once you’ve told me what you think about something, my first question is likely to be why? The moment you start asking people why they think things, you stop trying to impose your will upon them and start conducting a conversation in a way that is not combative. Even if you’re talking to somebody whose opinion you disagree with, rather than repeating your own opinion you can learn something by exploring the intricacies and the foundations of their worldview.

The takeaway: Don’t immediately disagree with the person you’re talking to – instead, ask why they think the way they do. It’ll help you to learn more about the perspective of the person you’re talking to – and also, potentially, how you can change their mind.

Base your opinion on reasoning, rather than trying to get a reaction. In some ways we’ve come to think that the greatest rewards are reserved for the people who make the biggest impact, regardless of whether they’re right or not. I think we can all sometimes adopt a position because we enjoy the reaction, and then it can become one of our entrenched positions instead of just being a bit mischievous and provocative. Being provocative for its own sake, though, will rarely lead to the best outcome for anybody. Basing opinions on real reasoning is much more beneficial and rewarding for all involved.

The takeaway: Remind yourself why you’re disagreeing. If your motive is to ‘win’ the debate, you’re probably not going to get much out of the conversation. If you’re aiming to come to a shared understanding, you’re more likely to empathise with the other person, and perhaps ultimately change their perspective.

Remember that not every opinion deserves to be given equal weight. Although it’s important to treat every person we talk to with respect, we can’t give equal respect to an ill-informed opinion and an evidence-based one. I love my job, but until I came to this simple realisation, I got to the point where I started thinking that I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life. I couldn’t keep treating an opinion that I know is wrong with the same respect that I treat an informed position that I know is scientifically grounded.

The takeaway: Try to understand where opinions are coming from. A wide range of views can be worth listening to, but consider what supports particular claims – whether they’re based on a gut feeling or anecdotes, or if they’re supported by data and scientific reasoning.

Rely on evidence where you can. Evidence is more necessary and, thankfully, often more available now than ever before. We should aim to return to the notion of objective truth, or at least, in scientific terms, the current best available explanation for observable evidence. There will be plenty of times when I’ll be wrong, and plenty when you’ll be wrong. But we can limit the damage of this by relying on robust evidence wherever possible – and by being willing to change our minds when better evidence becomes available.

The takeaway: Ask for the evidence. Intuition can pay off, especially when it’s grounded in experience, but if you can base your opinions on the best information at your disposal, you’ll always have something to fall back on.

Ask better questions to make better decisions.

Google Head of Measurement and Analytics Harry Davies explains how asking better questions allows better decision-making for marketers

Asking the right questions is the foundation of applying the scientific method to marketing. It’s crucial in planning but also proving your work: if we ask questions, then we can form a hypothesis; we can evaluate how effective our work is, and proceed accordingly. Asking the right questions rigorously and often will improve your marketing, because you will learn more from both successes and failures. You will improve your returns, and you will understand more about how people make decisions.

All brands should be striving to make better decisions, and that starts with asking better questions. Not everybody can do the statistical analysis required for complex experiments, but everyone can be more scientific in their mindset, and better questions are a huge part of that.

A good place to start is to use this simple checklist for evidence-based marketing:

5 questions every marketer should ask

  1. What evidence is there for that?
  2. How can we test if that will work here?
  3. Please can you explain how you know that?
  4. What assumptions have been made?
  5. Is X what we really need?

Finally, always remember to look for evidence that does not support the case you’re trying to make, as well as evidence that does.

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