Some of the most powerful influencers achieve results merely by asking questions. They either ask probing questions to individuals and groups, or they work through a formal process of facilitation in meetings and work groups. They don’t impose their own views on others; they just ask a series of thought-provoking questions to guide others to reach their own well-considered solutions. In this way they are asking key questions for best solutions in their communication campaigns.
Group facilitation is a form of listening. It is a collaborative process in which a person seeks to assist a group of individuals to discuss constructively various matters or issues that can be complex, or even potentially controversial. The group’s views and conclusions are a valuable input into the decision making process.
Listening is key to good communication
In this era, listening is a key requirement of good communication. But too much communication is just one-way – to merely get a message across without seeking feedback from the message recipients. This has historically been the case, but is changing. The two-way nature of social media is the outstanding example of the feedback loop. People and organizations are now obliged to take notice of social media comments from others because that feedback can cause organizational crises. Instead of just pushing messages, organizations need to respect their stakeholders by listening more to their views.
I’ve seen the benefits myself. In fact I did it myself in business facilitation about 12 years ago when I did some business coaching. The whole coaching method was based on facilitation and was extremely effective. Rather than telling people what to do, the facilitator helps people reach their own conclusions based on their own knowledge and experience.
Explore the issue or problem by asking questions
This approach is effective in both in-house communication roles as well as in PR firms with clients. If you explore an issue or problem by asking questions, you can lead to better outcomes. Asking questions is especially useful if you disagree with the other person or group, or if it is not appropriate to push your opinions on the others such as senior management. This means you don’t have to argue with them. By asking questions, you can lead them to form conclusions themselves. In other words, ask key questions for best solutions.
What’s more, asking enough good questions is often the key to creativity. Some of the most creative people in the world say information gathering is the key to creativity, and that listening well and persisting with questions is central to identifying big creative ideas.
Assessing creative ideas
Questions to ask about creative ideas
- Is the idea compatible with our brand values?
- Is the idea compatible with this communication strategy and objectives?
- Do this communication strategy and objectives support the organization’s mission and goals?
- Is the idea legal and ethical?
- Can it be developed within a realistic timescale and budget?
- Is it likely to provide added value?
- Are the commitments and risks acceptable?
Identify the root causes of objections to creative solutions
The stated problem or need for a communication campaign is not necessarily the true problem. You need to be sure of the need or problem before developing a creative strategy because you might need to change your creative solution if you realize the fundamental reasons for initiating a communication campaign are different from the reasons originally presented to you. There is no point in producing a creative idea if it is not relevant to the real reason for seeking the creative solution.
Find answers to the reporters’ traditional questions
You can uncover real causes with traditional journalistic questions like What? Where? When? Why? Who? How? and How much? These are the key questions for best solutions. The answers to these questions will influence your creative approach.
The Five Whys technique
Also, a famous technique to uncover the underlying cause of a problem or issue is the “5 whys,” meaning that for each apparent problem or need, you should ask “Why” or “Why did this happen?” around five times in the hope that five levels of inquiry will reveal a problem’s true cause. Our first answers usually address the obvious aspects of a problem or situation. When repeated, the question prompts us to think in more depth. Ask the 5 key questions for best solutions. Refer to articles such as 5 Whys from MindTools and The 5 Whys process we use to understand the root of any problem by Buffer.
Ask objective-focused questions for implementing a communication campaign plan
You need to check that your campaign communication plan supports your organization’s goals and objectives, no matter how big or small your organization is. A good place to start is to focus, for example, on the following four areas: brand, message, consumers/receivers, and resources.
- Does this action (internal or external) align with our company mission, brand, and values?
- Is this action consistent with our brand personality/voice and guidelines?
- Will this action dilute or strengthen our brand?
- Is our overall message consistent? Does this action maintain that consistency?
- To what extent can this messaging be misinterpreted?
- Does this message translate consistently and accurately through all communication mediums and channels on which it might travel?
- Which desirable types of audience/receivers will this most effectively reach?
- How does it do this?
- How do we check whether this sufficiently supports our campaign objectives?
- How will it affect the other, lower priority receivers?
- Do we have sufficient resources – labor (quality and availability) and financial?
- Does the return on investment justify the resources that will be used?
Then take an overall look. How does this integrate with the other actions you are taking, the other objectives you are pursuing, and the overall goals of your communication? Ask key questions for best solutions.
Start by answering everything from a short-term perspective (less than one year), move to middle range (one to five years), and finally long-term (more than five years). Do your answers change? If so how should that affect the type of action and its implementation?
Not only will this type of questioning help guide you when evaluating the value of individual actions, they will also most likely help you see some additional opportunities you might have been overlooking.
It is important to identify measurable actions that each stakeholder group or sub-group needs to take to fulfill the selected objectives. And those objectives need to support the organization’s mission and strategies.
For example, if your CEO wants to change the corporate culture, you should discuss first, before developing a communication campaign plan, what observable and measurable behaviors will be different if people respect each other more or have more integrity, etc. Once the behaviors reflecting each desired cultural value are defined, the behaviors can be measured before and after the communication plan is implemented.
Each communication activity should be based on an objective – either a process or a results objective – so that completing all the planned activities means that all the objectives have also been met. This should signify successful achievement of the plan.
The results should be measured against the objectives, which should have been written in quantifiable terms, to see how closely the actual result for each objective has matched the intended result. In total, all the component results contained in the plan should add up to successful achievement of the overarching results objectives so that the overall plan is achieved.
Questions to ask yourself when reviewing implementation activities
It pays to review the various management aspects of the implementation stage, so put yourself in the shoes of an external viewer and ask key questions for best solutions about implementation:
- Does everyone involved in the implementation understand our goals and objectives?
- Do we have a brand personality document to guide consistent communication?
- Are we managing key details on who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much cost is involved when we implement this?
- What quality control is in place? If insufficient, how can we ensure consistent quality?
- Are activities being implemented fully?
- Are deadlines accurate?
- Are we making it easy for each stakeholder in this activity?
Answering the above questions will help you to decide the key messages you can develop for your communication campaigns. You can read further about messages in my article, “How to use framing to communicate strong messages.”
Add value by changing the focus from tactical to strategic
Quite often when you are briefed for a campaign, the person briefing you may not understand much about communication. Also, they may not understand that communication / public relations activities need to support the broad organizational/client goals rather than be a one-off product promotion.
Rather than jump into communication activities as soon as a senior executive says, “We need to promote the new product,” or “We are looking for some free promotion” or “Please write a press release to support the new marketing campaign.” You are much better to take a more strategic approach, to examine the operating environment to see how you can best support corporate goals and objectives as an essential part of this activity. You can use this knowledge to directly align with the corporate goals and objectives.
Having done this, you can use the executive’s request as the start for proposing various value-adding PR activities rather than simply do only what you are told to do.
Facilitation, or asking questions, is a powerful way to guide the other person to your point of view. It is vital for you to guide the other person to your way of thinking by asking questions only. You can start by asking them open-ended questions that start with “What” or “How,” because it lets them feel as though they are educating you and it gives them a feeling of control. This creates a more collaborative atmosphere and helps them drop their guard if they think you may disagree with them.
Create rapport this way. Summarize back to them what they are saying. Now they know you are listening and understanding – without having to agree with them. This process of discovery brings you closer to understand their real focus and motivation.
Then you can start a facilitation process, eg “Do you think it would help to…?” and “What about..?” etc. In this way you are not pushing your ideas on the other person, or showing them up; instead you are allowing them some ownership of the approach you are mentioning to them. You are much more likely to gain their cooperation and approval in this way.
Basically, you are aiming to lead them to agree for you to put together some ideas for a concise communication plan which you can submit for their approval. Much of PR is no-cost or low-cost, which is a big advantage to the case you are making.
Checklist of key questions you should be asking to take a more strategic stance
- ‘How does the goal/objective of this activity connect to our organizational business goals?’
- ‘What is the main problem you want to solve?’
- ‘What outcomes are you seeking?’
- ‘What is important to our stakeholders/publics/target audiences?’
- ‘What do we want them to do, think and feel as a result of this action?’
- ‘What will it take to get them to do that?’ (Types of messages.)
- ‘What changes can we feasibly make from our end that can genuinely accommodate stakeholder views in this matter for a win-win solution?”
- ‘What value will result to the business if we achieve the goal of this activity?’
- ‘Can we integrate this with another tactic for better leverage?’
Refocus them with key questions for best solutions to reach a strategic stance
- ‘How will a brochure/media release drive [innovation, productivity, change management, new product launches, etc]?’
- How is this activity intended to support our organizational goals? Which ones?
- What other initiative could accompany this intended action?
- ‘Do you think one email is enough? What about reinforcing the message from other channels/avenues? Can we provide it in a more interactive and lasting way?’ etc…
If you want to find out more about how to deliver successful communication campaigns, you are welcome to buy my helpful ebook, Communication Campaign Plans: How to write a winning communication plan, which explains how to plan, implement and measure outcomes for maximum results.
Above photo by Kevin Clarke on Unsplash.