Answer The Damn Question!

In High School and College, we used to write essay tests in something called “Blue Books.” If you’re unfamiliar, a Blue Book is basically sixteen pages of lined paper with a light blue cover used to keep test answers in a tidy package.

My High School A.P. American History teacher taught me a valuable lesson, but it was not something you could ever find in a textbook. One day before an essay test, he explained to our class, that even though the grading of an essay appears to be subjective, the truth of the matter is the opposite.

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The pesky Blue Book – 16 pages of testing terror.

He then showed us an essay question from a previous test and right before our eyes he broke down the question in a logical and entirely quantifiable manner. He showed how we could always figure out how much each part of the question was worth and how the teacher is likely to assign points when grading. He ended the instruction by saying the following:

I don’t care what you know… really I don’t. I only care if you answer the question. If you go on and on, filling Blue Book after Blue Book with all the things you know, all you’re really going to get is a blister… if you don’t answer the question. So, take a few minutes at the start of every essay test and break the questions down so you know what the teacher is looking for. And please, for the love of God, stop filling the Blue Books full of shit you know that doesn’t answer the damn question.

I took this advice with me to college and it served me well through four years and more Blue Books than I can remember. Even when I didn’t now the answer I never wasted any time expounding on irrelevant things.

All too often in business, we find ourselves blinded by all we know, and we forget to, well, answer the damn question.


A few years ago I received an inquiring call from what ultimately became a new client. The call came from the marketing department of a company that designs and manufactures measurement equipment for oil and gas exploration. They called my company because they had seen our animation work, and they wanted to do a similar video for several of their products.

We decided to start with a single animation, figure out how our two companies would work together and then continue with the rest of the videos after that.

In our first meeting, they showed me videos produced by their largest competitors. Each video was basically the same and they explained in great detail how the device in question worked, but little else more. After the videos were over, everyone in the room turned their heads away from the screen and towards me. There was an awkward silence and then the conversation unfolded like this:

Client: Soooo, we want a video like that

Me: Okay, we can make you a video like the ones you’ve shown me, but let me ask you some questions. First off, what is the goal of the video? What are you hoping the video will do?

Client: Sell more of our devices, of course.

Me: Great! Tell me, who are the decision makers? Who decides if a company should buy your device or the competitor’s?

Client: The decision to buy ours versus someone else’s is made by either design engineers or purchasing agents.

Me: When they are considering this particular device, is it the only choice, or is there an alternative device that would do the job as well?

Client: When they need one of these, it is really the only technology that will do the job.

Me: All right, now we know the audience. Do the design engineers and purchasing agents know how the device works?

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The meeting took an interesting turn.

Client: The engineers do, the purchasing agents don’t, but it doesn’t really matter.

Me: So, if half the decision makers know how it works, and the other half don’t, and when they need this type of device they really have no other choice… what purpose will a video about how the device works serve?

Client: [insert sound of crickets chirping]

Me: The good news is, your competition has spent thousands of dollars educating the market on how the device works. It is now known, so there is no need to do it again. Let me ask you all… is your device better?

Client: Yes, absolutely! Well, mostly. In many ways it is better, in fact in some ways it is by far the best in the industry.

Me: Now we’re getting somewhere.

Client: [murmuring]

Me: How about this… we make a video that highlights all the reasons your device is the best in the industry, and we shy away from areas where the competition is equal or (gulp) better?

Client: That sounds like a better idea.

The video we made talked little about how the device worked, and instead focused almost entirely on how their device was better then the competition. It would have been easy to simply give them what they asked for, but they came to us both for our skill in video execution but also our experience in video as a communications medium.

The next time you’re about to get started with a new project, set your assumptions aside and ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. What is the goal of the project?
  2. Is what we are about to do the best way to achieve that goal?

If you can’t quickly, succinctly and completely answer both questions, then you are not ready to begin. Cancel the kickoff meeting, go back to the drawing board… and answer the damn question.

Copyright © 2017 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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