How to talk so stakeholders will listen, and listen so stakeholders will talk.

Or, how to conduct dialog interviews

The most effective marketing communications are a conversation between you, the service or product provider, and your audience, those you serve. The best conversations start by listening first.

So, the Clarity brand design process is built on the practice of listening first. We do this in two primary ways. One is what we call the Core Sample workshop. This is a facilitated workshop that invites stakeholders – customers, clients, donors, investors, leadership, staff members, board members, collaborators… – to share their experiences of the product or service in a safe, collaborative environment.

The second is a dialog interview. A dialog interview is a 30 minute in person or telephone interview that has just one primary objective: to give the interviewee the space and sanctuary needed to speak of her or his experience in an open, honest and authentic voice.

A dialog interview is not a survey. Not all interviewees are asked the same questions. A dialog interview is a dialog first and foremost. Your primary objective is to make the interviewee feel heard and respected. The discussions do share common prompts, but as the objective is to listen, not guide, they are only prompts. The most successful dialog interviews are those in which the interviewee does the vast majority of the talking.

Here are some rules of thumb about how to conduct an effective dialog interview.

First, identify with whom you will speak.

In my experience, you do not need to talk to a lot of people before you see significant patterns emerge. When conducting interviews for a Clarity Brand Study, I typically try to talk to 12 to 15 stakeholders. Fewer people will still reveal valuable insight, but with fewer interviewees it will be more difficult to notice commonalties and outliers. When you include more discussions you get both more insight, and the opportunity to make more people feel included in the work.

When identifying your interviewee list, consider two complimentary realties:

1. People love to be asked for their opinion, and
2. Listening to stakeholders is an unparalleled way to help people feel a sense of participation with you and your brand. This participation leads very naturally to a feeling of pride and ownership.

Asking your stakeholders for their perspective is a superb way to make them feel a natural affinity for your brand. So, ask first: who, within my network, do I want to invite into a deeper connection with my brand?

When coaching clients to sort through their own address books I ask them to consider:

– Who represents an ideal client or customer? Who are the people who get your offer without a lot of explanation?

– Who represents a frustrated or disappointed client or customer? Very often we can learn more from trial and error than we can the no-brainers.

– Who represents someone who is a natural cheerleader for your offer? Who is out there already spreading the good word?

– Who represents someone who may be a little unclear about your offer?

– If you are a non-profit, who represents a successful donor?

– If you are a for-profit, who represents a successful investor?

– Identify board members, past, present and future.

– Consider asking employees, past and present, for their perceptions and opinions.

– What about partners and collaborators? They work with you. What is their perception of your strengths and weaknesses?

Stakeholders mean just that. They have some kind of stake in the outcome of your work. Don’t limit yourself too conservatively.

Schedule the talk.

Be direct and to the point. In an email or a phone call tell the prospective interviewee that you are trying to improve your offer and how you present it. Explain that you would value their honest voice about their perceptions and experience of your offer.

Promise that you will need no more than 30 minutes, and maybe even less.

Then schedule the day and time you will talk.

Record the talk.

When I conduct a dialog interview I both write detailed notes about my conversation, and I record the conversation itself.

Before you do record any conversation, ask for the interviewee’s permission to do so. I typically promise that while their words might be cited to others for learning and strategic purposes, they will not be directly attributed. (If later, for any reason you do want to attribute someone by name, make sure to reconnect and secure their additional permission to do so.)

I use Uber Conference for this purpose. It is free, and requires only that both interviewer and interviewee call into the common conference call platform. Recording the call is as simple as hitting a button, and you can download an MP3 file of the call immediately.

Get the demographics out of the way first.

While this isn’t a survey, you do want to understand how people live so that you can put their needs in context. So, at the very front ask just a few, unifying demographic questions:

What is your household size?


Married? For how long?

Kids? How old?

What is your profession?

What is your education level?

These questions, obviously, can be customized based on what your offer is. Sometimes, for example, whether they own or rent matters to you, sometimes it doesn’t.

Take no more than 3-4 minutes to get a quick but accurate sketch of who they are.

Give the demographics a little bit of psychographic perspective.

Like demographic questions, questions that yield psychographic insight need to reflect what you need to understand most. I recently conducted a series of dialog interviews for an edgy Swiss watch brand. Here are some of the psychographic questions I asked their customers, re-sellers and distributors:

Outside of the time you spend sleeping and working, how do you spend most of your time?

What kind of music do you listen to?

What do you do for fun?

Are you physical? Do you work out? Surf? Ski?

How would you describe your dressing style?

What kind of car do you drive?

Do you have a motorcycle? What kind?

Again, the goal is to get an accurate-enough snapshot, not an exhaustive profile.

Be conversational.

Once you’ve got a brief understanding of who you are taking to, it’s time to learn about their own perspective. Remember, this is an interview, not a survey. Use leading questions, then step aside and let the interviewee have the floor.

To break the ice, I often ask a simple question like: “How did you first learn of ____________?”

Or, “Imagine that we are seat mates on an airplane. If I asked you to describe ________________ to me, an interested stranger, how would you do so?

Or, “How would you describe the ______________ offer to a trusted friend?

To the best of your ability, coax your subject to do most of the talking. Follow their lead. If, for example, they mention their kids, stop and ask about the kids. Stop and learn as much as can about the person and his or her motivating needs by getting them to talk about their kids, or whatever else is important to them.

At the end of the day, your brand is not about you, it’s about how your brand helps those you serve meet their own personal needs and interests. So use this interview as an opportunity to ask questions like:

“How, specifically, does _____________________ meet your needs? How does it help you? What of your needs does it help you meet?”

“What do you think that _____________________ does really well?”

Or, when I feel close enough to be able to speak in the vernacular, I’ll ask: “What’s the itch? What’s the itch that you feel that ____________ helps you scratch?

Make it clear that this is about learning and improvement.

Very importantly, use this opportunity to learn. Ask:

“What things do you think that ______________ could do better?”

“Has there ever been a time when _________________ didn’t meet your needs?

Find out who else might meet the same needs.

No business or organization exists in a vacuum. Clients and customers typically build a portfolio of service providers who, collectively, meet their needs.

“Who else provides similar services?”

“How are they different”

“Why did you choose one over the other?”

Listen, don’t judge.

The purpose of a dialog interview is to listen. While later in the brand design process we will connect some dots and draw some conclusions, for now we are simply listening. Try your best not to draw conclusions or to reconcile apparent contradictions.

The understanding and insight that can be revealed by listening is powerful and unparalleled. It can be the basis for a clear brand, an effective communications platform, and new strategic initiatives. Those things come later.

Step one is to engage your stakeholders and listen to them. No one else has their perspective. No one else has their insight.



Photo by David Dodge, via Creative Commons

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