Planning a company anniversary? Register for this year's Anniversary Marketing Summit now for special pricing.

Insights

What Can Corporate Communicators Learn from the Art of the Oral History?

November 22, 2019 • Caelin Niehoff

Consider this: You’re more likely to hire someone if they ask you questions. You’re also more likely to go out on a second date with someone if they ask you about yourself. People who ask questions win. Questions lead to conversations. Conversations lead to relationships. For today’s business professionals, inquiry inspires more than friendship. It drives results.

How are questions shaping your organization’s relationships with its employees, customers and communities? Here are few you may be asking yourself and your coworkers:

  • What kind of culture do we want to foster among employees?
  • How are we going to measure success against our objectives?
  • Where will our organization be in five years?
  • Who has the final say when it comes to decision-making?
  • What is the purpose of this meeting?

In 2015, Harvard Business Review asked more than 200 of its own clients how frequently they asked questions. Clients replied that only 15 percent to 20 percent of their interactions consisted of questions. Some professions are characterized by talking, not asking. Chief communications officers are responsible for crafting messages and distributing information. It is their job to get the word out. But if all communicators follow the practice of oral historians and start asking more questions, they’ll be better equipped to create compelling and authentic content.

Oral historians listen and learn.

Pictured: Someone being interviewed in front of a camera. Oral historians are asked important questions to learn from.

Inquiry is at the heart of the oral history interview process. Every interview commences with questions designed to elicit anecdotes and insights from interviewees. The caveat:  Interviewers cannot predict exactly how interviewees will respond.

Walking into a conversation without knowing where it will go can be challenging. It requires interviewers to relinquish a certain degree of control. Imagine a meeting where questions drive the agenda. Interviewers who let questions drive the agenda build better relationships with interviewees—and usually learn more about their interviewees as a result.

Reflection is another central component of oral history interviews. Questions framed as “things to think about” allow individuals to consider the trajectory of their careers and contributions to an organization. How often do you wish you could have hit pause, turned back the clock, or revisited a crucial moment in your organization’s history? What might you have learned from a founder or firsthand witness during a cultural turning point?

How can you ask better questions?

Pictured: A camera screen showing an interview. Good questions are the key of a worthwhile conversation.

Good questions are the crux of a worthwhile conversation. Interviewers add value to questions through due diligence. In addition to conducting research on the individual, oral historians seek to understand the context of the interviewee’s profession, industry and role within an organization. They map out timelines of economic change and world events.

This takes time and resources. But by bringing together various topics, from annual report figures to personal experiences, oral historians can see nuances and understand insights that others may overlook. Similarly, communications professionals can approach content from a variety of angles and ask how and where different viewpoints might intersect.

Can you be curious and concise?

Pictured: An interview setup. Good interview questions are clear questions.

Good questions are also clear questions. Clarity is crucial in today’s cluttered communications landscape. A call to action stalls when audiences don’t understand what is being asked of them. Ask follow-up questions, get more specific and consider reframing a prompt. Communicators who make assumptions miss out on the opportunity to fill in the gaps and add color and detail to their stories.

We can use simple questions to move complex issues forward. During a breakout session at The Communication Network’s annual conference, ComNet, facilitator and Moving Up Media thought leader Bob McKinnon unpacked how the American Dream Score helped audiences understand privilege by turning the microphone over to individuals and asking them about their personal experiences.

Why are questions worthwhile?

Integrating questions into your professional life is essential, whether you’re trying to better understand consumers or the objectives that will drive your next campaign. Consumer insights may be a more obvious application of the value of inquiry, but how are questions driving your business objectives beyond focus groups and surveys? Consider these questions next time your team sits down to begin their next project:

  • Do I want a transactional or relational conversation?
  • Am I asking the right questions? Are the terms I am using appropriate?
  • How can we prioritize our objectives?
  • How are we adhering to or diverging from what we’ve done in the past?
  • What inspires me? Have I asked my colleagues what inspires them?

Remember, input can come from but isn’t reserved for outsiders. Asking for feedback from your own team fosters what Stanford University professor Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has this mindset, so wouldn’t you want your team to adopt it? By asking more and better questions of colleagues and customers, companies can create cultures of learning—and cultivate employees who are motivated by growth and personal development—within their organizations.

SHARE THIS
 

More About Video & Storytelling

What Can Corporate Communicators Learn from the Art of the Oral History?

Consider this: You’re more likely to hire someone if they ask you questions. You’re also… Read More

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Social Media in the Workplace

It’s nearly 2020, and social media is everywhere. It’s on the news—and for some people,… Read More