Ask the Right Questions; Control the Conversation.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, pollster and messaging guru Frank Luntz offered the following counsel to Republicans:  Re-frame the questions being asked about America’s future because, as he put it, “whoever controls the questions determines the answer.”  Smart advice.  Because posing the right questions determines the best path for targeting audiences and moving them in the direction we want them to go.

In this day of instant – and often poorly thought-through communications – the tendency is to jump right to the answer.  For example, Luntz suggests that these particular politicians shouldn’t ask how to make government smaller; instead they should ask how to make it more effective and efficient.  And instead of asking how to reform the tax code, he counsels, they should talk about making it simpler, flatter, and fairer, driving right to heart of the code’s much-reviled complexity.

Politicians don’t have a monopoly on asking the wrong questions. The questions that companies and nonprofits frequently try to answer for their audiences are not the questions that matter most to those audiences.  Most often, organizations ask the “what” questions: What do we have to sell? What services do we provide?  And the overriding question seems to be, “What about us?” Whether it’s a public relations effort or an ad campaign, the questions, and the answers that follow, fall short.

Take, for instance, Coca Cola’s new ads about obesity. The campaign answers several questions that seem to matter more to the soft drink industry than to its customers:  What can we do to minimize the rising tide of research and advocacy against sugary drinks?  What can we do to defend our brand and product?  Instead, they might try asking, why is this backlash occurring? How can we participate in a discussion on healthy choices?  And how can we encourage consumers to moderate those choices, in the same way the alcohol industry encourages people to drink responsibly?

Whether the inquisitor is a corporation, a nonprofit, an association, or a special interest, the questions that matter most are the “why?” and the “how?” Those questions speak most clearly to the needs, desires, objectives, and aspirations of your audiences.  Why is our service/product useful to you?  Why do we do what we do?  How do we make sure to deliver the product and service you need?  Why does what we offer matters?

By asking “why” and “how,” the answers – the key messages – you craft will be more compelling and meaningful to your audience, drawing a straight line from their interests to the action or attitude you’d most like them to take.