In his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy stated, “There are no boring products, only boring writers.” This advice has served me well over the years as it has forced me to view myself as a reporter who needs to find the story with regard to a company’s products, services or applications.

Like a reporter, I’m always looking for the “hook” that I can turn into content that will interest potential prospects.

When I do find it, it feels like magic as everything suddenly “clicks” into place. If it’s a really good story, I get goosebumps. I love that feeling.

Finding the hook isn’t always easy, especially when information is in people’s heads. The way to extract it is by asking lots of questions — smart ones and “dumb” ones.

To help you find stories in your company or your clients’ organizations, consider the following open-ended questions that are guaranteed to get people talking.

1. What makes your company different?

Most people can answer this one pretty easily and will rattle off reasons why their company is different from their competitors. Listen carefully and be sure to ask follow up questions such as, “What kind of feedback do you get from customers about your products / services?” or “How do your customers find out about you?”

If you work for a company, ask sales people these questions as they’ll be able to give you the “outside” perspective based on what they see and hear from clients and prospects.

2. How has your industry changed in the last 3 – 5 years?

No matter the industry, technology has changed it. Your job is to find out how. The key to making this question work is to play dumb. Even if you know all about the industry (i.e. you’ve worked in it for years), ask lots of basic questions anyway because it’s amazing how much information you’ll learn about your company, new technologies, the industry, people, competitors, etc. — all from an “in the trenches perspective” that you won’t get by doing research online or reading trade journals.

3. What were your most successful projects in the last couple of years and why?

This is one of my favorite questions because I hear some really good stories that often end up in some way, shape or form on my clients’ Website. When I asked this question of the team at Veterans Development Corporation, I got a great story in return — one that made me tingle.

What this story told me about the people in the company is that they’re responsive, creative, and smart. They get the job done and they get it done right — a message that became the basis for their entire site.

4. Why is that important?

Sometimes you’ll hear information that doesn’t make sense or goes straight over your head. Instead of pretending you know what the person is talking about, don’t be afraid to ask, “What does that mean?” or “Why is that important?” By asking these questions, I often learn unexpected details that I can use while writing marketing content.

5. Why should people do business with your company?

I like this question because it forces people to think. (In fact, I often have people say, “Wow, that’s a great question.”) I usually get lots of great answers, which lead to follow-on questions, which in turn gives me lots of ideas for how to position the company as I write their Web content.

These are just five questions that will get people talking — you can probably think of more.

If you’re hesitant about asking questions or appearing “stupid,” listen to TV or radio journalists and the types of questions they ask when interviewing people. They’re experts at asking open-ended questions that get people talking.

The more questions you ask, the more engaging your content will be as 1) it will be fresh and original and 2) it won’t be filled with hype and jargon.

For additional content ideas, view the following articles:

Creating Original Content: Go for a Walkabout

Make Your Content Do Double Duty When Writing to Multiple Audiences

  • Love the approach to questions, especially #’s 3 and 4.
    In the Solution Focus* world we’d build from there with,
    – Suppose we did more of that and the problem we have goes away what would be happening?
    – How would that be useful to our customers, stakeholders, etc.?
    – Suppose we are successful, what would be the first steps to making progress…right away?

    * http://www.slideshare.net/alankay1/solutions-focus-approach-try-it

    Thanks, Alan.

  • Frances Wheeler

    Good article, Dianna. Thanks.

  • Alan — Thanks for the additional questions!

    Frances — Thanks for the feedback and nice to see you, too.

  • Great questions! Sometimes your expert is so close to the company or product that it’s like asking someone why they love their child. They have so many reasons, that they tend to give you “soft” answers. (“Because my child is delightful. Because he/she makes my life whole.”) The same with people who have lived and breathed a project or a company and know it intimately. (“Because the product is really terrific. Because so many people have put their heart and soul into this company.”) You often have to provide leading questions to help them sort it all out and verbalize their answers with more concrete words. The questions you pose here help provoke thought and generate the kinds of answers you need to, as you put it, “find the story.”

  • Sheryl — Yes, that’s it exactly. You have to keep asking “leading” questions until you get the real story. And often, people have no idea how remarkable their stories are.