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Good Thinking | September 24, 2015 | 2 min read

French philosopher Voltaire once said, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”

In marketing communications, the key to unlocking a strategic insight on a business problem often rests on the ability to ask the right question, to dig a little deeper and truly engage the consumer or client on a particular subject. It doesn’t matter which discipline you call home—creative, digital, account planning, media planning or account management—the Holy Grail is finding a better question.

Of course, the most insightful questions typically meander down open-ended paths, beginning with “Why,” “What,” “Who,” “Where” or “How.” It’s the classic line of questioning that any good journalist uses to get to the root of the story. I’ve found that a good way to learn to ask better questions is by watching and listening to good journalists on TV and radio as they dig deeper to find that little nugget that will lead to a great story.

For example, Chuck Todd on the NBC show Meet the Press is great at asking probing questions that funnel past the surface answers regurgitated by a politician. And a great local interviewer is Kerri Miller from Minnesota Public Radio. Watch and listen to any of the great interviewers, and see how they dig to find out the answer to an issue or problem.

Here’s one example of how asking the right question provided us with a strategy that confounded the world’s largest retailer. Walmart was doing price comparison advertising against our client. The receipts they showed in the ads only featured “center of the store” items. This led us to ask Walmart grocery shoppers WHAT they shopped for at Walmart. Sure enough, they failed to mention fresh foods. We countered with a strategy that featured only fresh items – produce, meats, bakery and deli items. It worked immediately. Walmart failed to make the same market share gains it had experienced when using this approach in other markets.

Great questions often create clarity around a subject, which is critical for a marketer to develop a strong strategy. Dig a little deeper for that nugget of insight that will lead to an even better solution. Great questions will also help people think critically and can prompt them to see things in fresh, unpredictable ways. Plus, smart questions can also push your team to dream up more dynamic, breakthrough solutions—a sign that you’re doing a top-notch job.

This week we offer up a challenge: While you’re sitting in your next business meeting, dig around in the proverbial dirt for that one question—or that series of questions—that will help lead to a better solution for your client and for the consumer. Once you’ve landed on a few startlingly essential questions to pose, please share them here. Can we learn from one another?