I am writing this Manifesto #4 while my class of MBA students are writing their International Marketing case exam. As the exam started this morning, I listened for the type of questions they asked. Inevitably, I got the usual process questions and the disorientation questions, such as “what is this product [in the case] and what is it used for?” (natural for a mix of international students as many come from very different cultures than North America).
However, a few questions indicated to me that some pretty significant investigation and analysis was happening, even as the exam started. And as I watched student behavior when they examined the physical samples of the product that were on display, I noted how some students looked for deeper cultural significance..
Over the last decade of teaching business students, I have come to listen more to my students’ questions than to their answers for evidence of their learning and progress.
For myself as a marketer, teacher, business person, and parent, I have also come to understand that the quality of my own questions indicates where I am in understanding something and getting at truth. If I ask the wrong questions I get lost. If I ask the right questions I get interesting answers that lead me to interesting truths.
This insight led me to my next Marketing Manifesto Principle…
A Marketing Manifesto
10 principles and practices of great marketing:
#4: It’s all about asking the right questions.
The ability to ask the right questions at the right time is infinitely more powerful in marketing than thinking you have the right answers.
When I was doing my own MBA, I remember one student, who after a particular class, left our group and walked over the loading dock of our building to chat with the crew of a commercial delivery truck. “So, how much do you guys make per hour?” he asked them. “How is business?” and “what’s the economy like?” were two other questions he asked. We all laughed at our fellow student, thinking at that time that he was just pretending to be a Big Business Man or something. I mean, what can you learn from delivery guys? The REAL learning was in the classroom, after all. “We are MBA students, destined to run the free capitalist world!” (groan)
But he wasn’t pretending, nor was he wasting his time when he should have been focusing on classroom learning. In fact, he was a lot smarter than the rest of us.
After all, who would better know the state of the economy than those people who deliver the goods in it? Who better to know the state of the economy before it is publicly announced in the media than those actually directly involved moving it? And how better to know the state of the economy than by hearing how much commercial shippers are making per hour – those who are invaluable to the economy?
No, he wasn’t playing the fool. I was, by believing that what I put into my head was more important than the questions I asked.
He knew the right questions to ask, the right people to ask, and the right time to ask them. I didn’t.
How do you learn to ask the right questions?
I could write a book full of professional and personal stories about how I asked the right questions, the wrong questions, or no questions at all, when I should have asked some. But this is not the time and place. I think you get the idea: Marketing is not about data, information, or your wisdom or someone else’s wisdom. It’s about asking the right questions.
So how do you learn to ask the right questions?
Some practices to get you started in asking the right questions
1. Stop filling your head with information. In fact, you might consider consciously emptying your head of information. Stop reading the newspaper, get rid of the big screen TV, sign-off of the torrent of e-newsletters, and donate your already read books to the local thrift store. Seriously. You cannot make space for new questions, and their answers, until you empty your head of what you already know.
2. And if you are really seeking truth, you have to go further and create awareness space, too. Admit to yourself that your already acquired information, knowledge, beliefs, and learned behaviors are history and of little use to you if you want to understand the “now”. Try meditation, running, yoga, or any other technique that works for you to bring your awareness into the present moment, free and clear of…your own thoughts about the past and the future. Being present in the moment is a habit that you must practice to get good at. And it is a habit that is essential to being ready to ask the right questions at the right time.
3. Break habits every day. Eat with the opposite hand you normally use. Walk home from work a different way as many times as you can. Go to a new place you have never been to at least once a week. Walk slowly rather than your usual fast gait. Bring into your conscious awareness your own habits and purposefully break them – every single day. Feel the discomfort of doing so and the immediate liberation of your mind from the usual stream of thoughts about the past and planning for the future. Live on the edge of awareness rather than in a fog of mental noise. Breaking habits is about asking questions…good questions about yourself – which allows you to start to asking good questions about other things.
4. Be ready to be a little afraid, a little lonely, and a little sad. Sorry to tell you this: Asking really good questions will likely result in other people getting emotionally triggered by the nature of your questions (truth hurts). Your questioning mind will isolate you somewhat as you come out of the mainstream mindset, and will disillusion you to much of what you thought was “true”. All this can make you feel a bit sad and lonely at first.
5. Be ready to be a bit brave, a bit free, and a bit excited. NOT sorry to tell you this: Truth is empowering! Asking really good questions is the gaining of power that will help you feel more confident and brave, free from your old fears and doubts, and quite excited about what you are learning and how you are living. Getting good at asking the right questions at the right time will change who you are into someone quite…well, “strong”, I guess.
(another little secret side benefit: Seeking and offering truth has an incredible affect on your relationships. Get ready for fewer but deeper friendships, more loving connections, and intoxicating passions like you never thought possible. Incredible people are going to come into your experience when your focus is on seeking and offering truth…ENJOY!)
6. Start learning from the right people. Try Tim Ferriss, author of the eye-opening book The Four-Hour Workweek. This book and Tim’s practices will reshape how you ask questions. He is pretty extreme in his views, but his modus operandi is not.
Check out TED talks for any number of fascinating, insightful, and inspiring people who “walk the walk” of asking the right questions (ted.com). Find a person who really inspires you? Go to one of their workshops or talks for real and learn from them in-person. And make an appointment with your local hypnotherapist, Buddhist monk, sports psychologist, or “20th Dan” Karate black belt. They all know how to clear their minds, stay present in the moment, and ask the right questions.You can learn a lot from them.
Oh, did I forget to tell you to get rid of the TV? In case I didn’t: Get rid of your TV. You can’t learn to ask the right questions by watching people in commercials and sitcoms on TV. You have to practice it, for real in the real world, with real, live people, who can help you learn the skills you need to get good at the practice.
So where does this get you?
Another skill that you need to get really good at marketing.
What happens later?
If you gain some good negotiating and diplomacy skills on top of your ability to ask really good questions, you will be ready for your own marketing and advertising consultancy.
Why a consulting practice? Where does this angle come from? Why won’t I simply be able to get a great job as a marketer in a big company?
Sorry: You will be way too smart and way too threatening, to be hired by any normal organization. You would scare the hell out of their staff with the power of your questions and the uncomfortable answers that result!
Most people are not ready for truth.