Ask the dumb question
If you’ve seen any of our video interviews from AutoSens, you’ll know that these provide a heady mixture of technology, jargon, explanations, demos and of course, insightful comment from interviewees.
I’m also there, asking questions and trying my hardest to understand it all. Not being an engineer, or technologist, or PhD researcher, I don’t have a decade of experience in the field, but luckily we have a great camera-man and editor whose job it is, as I assure our interviewees, “to make them look good, and make their products look good”.
While that video content gets lots of views for a comparatively small audience (more than 12000 views on YouTube so far) our marketing is largely creating content away from events and has been focused mostly on written content.
Articles fall into two categories – opinion pieces written by one of the team about something they’re knowledgeable and passionate about (we don’t generally commission these articles on a rigid structured basis), or written interviews, with questions researched here at Sense Media HQ and occasionally sent out to speakers, advisory board members, sponsors and exhibitors – all well-established people around the industry.
As a rule, I’ll send out about ten questions, around half of which will be about the company and products, a couple will be about the event and a couple will be personal questions – looking at the interests, qualities or even values of the people we talk to. These, for me, are really the most important, because I absolutely don’t believe the subject of someone’s PhD or first line of their official company bio is the sum of that person, their professionalism or capabilities.
I like to look deeper, partly because it makes my job easier later on, but also because that little window into the person at the other side of the world might be the one connection you have to trust their word, establish a friendship or even initiate a business transaction.
We don’t seek out to show off religious or political views, support an unpopular sports team or have an unusual background, but if someone else has them, we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that.
When these interviews come back, usually there’s a little editing to do to improve the grammatical flow (quite often because our interviewees are writing in their second or third language), after that, there’s some online magic to conjure up appropriate keywords, search engine optimisation, linking to other relevant articles and websites, adding a picture or two and giving a shove on social media.
We don’t tamper with the content. It’s not a golden rule, but so far we haven’t needed to – and that’s credit to the variety and ‘interestingness’ of the people we talk to.
It’s this level of honesty and frankness that we help bring out that I feel is one of the hallmarks of AutoSens. Hosting the on-track demos during our first US event, I spoke to perhaps 10 individuals whose companies I hadn’t heard of before, all of whom gave me the same answer when I asked “How did you hear about it?” The answer was surprising and made me realise that we’d stumbled across a fundamental but fortuitous mistake in our marketing strategy.
That answer was “I was asked / encouraged / told to come by my CEO”. These were not companies or CEOs on our database, these are CEOs and company owners that might not be finger-on-the-pulse engineers, but still take careful time to learn about and consider their competition and valuable influences on their strategy, workforce skills, and commercial environment. These are CEOs that use Google to find out more about a topic, stumbling across our interviews with engineers and thought leaders, and enjoying the fact that I’m asking questions that they might not be able to.
They’re also learning about what makes their potential suppliers tick, or at least, that’s what I hope, seeing kindred spirits and a desire for exploration and openness.
The mistake we had made was thinking our content would be desired mainly by engineers, but they get to enjoy the conference and workshops instead – so it’s great to know we’re bringing knowledge and information to a wider audience. At least their attendance and involvement in the community is driven by support at the highest levels of their own organisation, and that’s an important message to be on the receiving end of.
An important lesson for me was at college, and it’s something that has guided what I’ve done for a long time. In a particularly technical lecture, which everyone was struggling with, one student looked around, stood up and said “I’m really sorry, I don’t understand any of this, and I haven’t understood anything you’ve said for the past 10 minutes, please can you explain it again?”. That was 20 years ago, and the student in question had, at 24 years old, just left the military after serving 8 years (yes, since the age of 16).
That service had taught him that important lesson: ‘Have the courage to ask the dumb question’.
So I do. Unashamedly. I will ask what colour something is, I will ask why something is important, I will ask how it’s important, and ask what makes something better than something else. Mainly because I don’t know, but also because there are many more people wanting to ask the same questions but are afraid – through rank or fear of judgement – to do the same.
While it might seem like the obvious thing to do within the field of engineering or investigative science or research, other environments (perhaps like some aspects of business) might not have that approach. It’s helping me make a living, after all.
In the past 5 years (and including previous roles), I’ve probably conducted more than 200 written and video interviews, and yes, practice makes it easier – as does having a great cameraman/editor knowing when to film a second, fourth or twelfth take, cut out a stumble or stutter, remove sneezing fits or passing trains – but it only works when I know nothing and ask dumb questions.
It’s certainly helped me, and I hope it’s helped you too.