Are You an Answer or a Question? 7



Sometimes the most interesting things are the ones you can't explain.

One of the basics of business is that customers want solutions. They want their problem, their “pain,” completely addressed.

In fact, one of the primary lessons of branding is that’s only partly true, because here’s another cliche with a lot of truth in it: Always leave them wanting more.

This post was occasioned by thoughts from Mark Brimm asking you to think about whether your product, your idea, your service is just a flash in the pan or whether it provides for further installments, future editions, subsequent versions.

Mark’s question analogizes perfectly to communications. What is a product ultimately anyway except an exchange of meaning and value? What is a campaign but a process of persuasion? Products and PR campaigns are conversations. That’s another truism that’s become so evident that we sometimes need to restate it so that we’re not blindly assuming.

Think of the characteristics of good conversations. They engage you, which is to say, they cause you to want to be active. To respond. To participate. To contribute. In other words, the conversation is not complete without all the parties involved. A good conversation is always left wanting, always unfinished.

Mark notes that real business models work the same way, and there’s a powerful lesson here for communicators–is your communication the final word? Does it answer every question? Does it make the recipient unnecessary? If so, you’ve just closed the door. And we all know how hard it is to get a door open once it’s closed.

There are lots of ways to leave the door open:

  • Asking questions. What do you think about this subject?
  • Surfacing assumptions. Make explicit what you’re presupposing in your argument or your persuasive case–people can then engage it at a fundamental level.
  • Acknowledging uncertainties. Most PR, most marketing — most communications in general — tries to hide the unknowns. If you want the conversation to continue, you not only need to reveal them, you need to make them a basic part of the discussion. Involve others in helping you find the answers. Don’t find answers–find mysteries.
  • Sharing opposing viewpoints. If you know someone disagrees (e.g., another product has a different solution, another group believes in a different outcome, etc.), engage the argument. People are much more likely to allow your message if they see that you know that yours is not the only answer.
  • Wading into messy arguments. Want to get people talking and remaining engaged? You won’t do it by focusing on things people agree with. You have to challenge people. Gently…but challenged nonetheless. Think iPhone vs. Android. Cowboys vs. Raiders. We love to disagree!
  • Creating platforms. Are you giving people ways not only for them to talk with you, but to talk with each other as well? Are you creating a language they can use? This has to do with making your communications extensible — the same way that an iPod becomes the center of a constellation of accessories. The center of a lifestyle.

Lost is a great illustration of what these principles look like in this new world. The show left open most of its basic questions.It spawned vast debates and arguments over its meaning. It alluded to other pieces of culture (it was plug and play; fully universal; provided multiple avenues of entry). And it spanned television, the internet, books, comics–it was a wonderful piece of transmedia. It also practiced one of the ultimate forms of leaving people wanting more–it listened to its audience. As the show progressed, it became clear the creators were reading the comments of fans, listening to their podcasts and even specifically speaking to them in the show. Fans became co-creators. The show was theirs in a way. Now that is a dialog. That’s something that’s not going to be a flash in the pan.

Think about Shakespeare–the reason it still provokes emotion after 400 years isn’t that it provides answers–it’s that it asks, To be or not to be? Wherefore art thou Romeo? Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? It’s all about the unanswerable.

Perhaps this is a way of saying that PR, like any other exchange of meaning and value, whether on a stage or in a market, is an art. When (if)  it reaches the point of science, it won’t have any point. Fortunately, we don’t seem to be anywhere near that yet, as Lady Gaga so ably demonstrates.

Ultimately, a lot of good communications is about exiting well–quitting at just the right moment, an instant before the conversation is actually finished. Moving onto the next product while this product is still popular, switching the message while people are just getting done enjoying the current one—not before and not after. Timing.

It’s about always leaving them wanting more. What more do you want?

Thanks for reading.


About William Reichard

Will Reichard, MBA, President, has a broad background in social media, strategic communications and marketing, public relations, development, fundraising and business management. His forte is messaging. From working as an editor with a Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper to helping establish capacity in an early-phase public relations company aimed at middle-market businesses to articulating the selling points of an innovative customer-focused nonprofit fundraising organization (United Way of Central New Mexico), Reichard consistently helps to give shape to challenging but mission-critical ideas. He is an award-winning writer who has been published in outlets including Innovation: America’s Journal of Technology Commercialization. Most recently, he has consulted for a wide range of clients through his company, CrossCut Communications, and has become a sought-after speaker and adviser on the field of social media and business, a role in which he enjoys applying his bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology. He writes a blog on social media, public relations, marketing and technology and was recently invited to be a panelist on personal branding at the prestigious Crittenden National Conference. He has additional interests in change management, social theory, issues of diversity, and management of technology. He graduated magna cum laude in anthropology and recently completed an executive-level master’s of business administration with a 4.0 gpa, both through the University of New Mexico. He is a member of Beta Gamma Sigma. Reichard belongs to Social Media Club and the New Mexico Tech Council, is a member of the Albuquerque Independent Business Alliance, and belongs to the Business New Mexico network. He is involved in a variety of community efforts, including serving as president of Albuquerque Net Impact Professional and the board of the YMCA of Central New Mexico. He is particularly proud of his membership in the Rotary Club of Albuquerque del Sol. Available for speaking opportunities.

  • A timeless tip and a perfect example with Lost, Will. Not feeling closure in a communication of any sort has the same effect of wanting to see more, stay tuned in. Many of us continue to struggle with this, regardless of posting on a regular basis. It’s great to have it hit you in the face like this. It’s too easy to forget this.

    • I’m honored, Mark, to get that reaction from someone who is so good at posing questions.

      To your point, it’s a natural human tendency to look for closure, especially in this age of Hollywood endings. Non-Western people used to believe that everything came around again and that nothing really “ended.” Hmmm…ideas for still another post!

      Thanks for the comment.

  • I find this a common challenge with clients. Often looking for definitive solutions. The “one” thing that answers all so they can stop looking. This illustrates not only our challenge in engaging clients and new opportunities, but also, what happens once things are engaged. Have you sold a solution, or a path of ongoing solutions that evolve?

    Nice work here.

    • Thanks, Justin! Great tieback to the client relationship. Businesses often kill themselves by telling clients the “answers” instead of trying to be the people clients turn to for help in figuring out problems that no one really knows the answers to. You have a great point that it takes great businesses _and_ great clients to work this way. It’s one of the things I really like from the quality movement–the idea that we’re never going to achieve perfection, just get closer all the time.

      Anyhow, thanks again for taking this in a new direction–definitely fertile ground here!

  • Pingback: Thoughts On: “Are You an Answer or a Question?” | Georgia Community Support & Solutions()

  • Trackback was picked up below already, but I thought I’d post the link here if anyone wants to follow up the convo there: http://gcsscommunity.com/2010/09/24/thoughts-on-are-you-an-answer-or-a-question/

    • Eric Pudalov

      Hey Mark! I realize that this post was from last year, but I wanted to thank you for linking back to the Georgia Community Support and Solutions blog. I’ve been following up on all the trackbacks recently, to see if I missed any. I’ll make an effort to stop by your blog more often for PR advice and the like.