Review: Asking Smarter Questions
About the author
Thomas Stoeckle leads the AMEC International Certificate in Measurement and Evaluation for PR Academy and is a part-time lecturer at Bournemouth University.
Asking Smarter Questions: How To Be an Agent of Insight
By Sam Knowles
2023, Routledge, 280 pages
In the preface of his latest and final book in the Using Data Better trilogy, Sam Knowles admits that he ‘wrote the books in the wrong order’. He states the ‘unsynchronous chronology’ of starting with data storytelling in Narrative By Numbers (NbN, 2018), then exploring the paths to true data-driven insights in How To Be Insightful (HTBI, 2020), before getting to the principle at the heart of it all: Asking Smarter Questions (ASQ, published last month and dated 2023).
What matters much more than the order, however, are the recurring themes that thread together the three books to a trilogy about powerful purposeful organisational storytelling: about asking the right questions to get to the right insights that help tell the right stories.
A trilogy about powerful purposeful organisational storytelling: about asking the right questions to get to the right insights that help tell the right stories
A disclaimer: as Sam is a friend, a former colleague, and with Neville Hobson my co-presenter at the SmallDataForum podcast, I’m likely to be more familiar with his thinking (not least thinking about thinking), than most readers of this review. Hopefully, you’ll trust me that that’s a good thing, and has not clouded my judgement.
A classicist (more Greco than Roman in his own view) and behavioural psychologist with decades in the ‘moving business’, Sam’s interests and curiosity are wide-ranging and eclectic. In ASQ, he discusses the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s ‘epistemophilic instinct’ – a constant search for knowledge and desire to connect dots – and throughout all three of his books, we get the perspectives of fellow epistemophiliacs from a wide range of fields. These voices – from Nobel Prize-winning science to policing to Zen Buddhism – provide strong proof points for the core argument: that smarter questions stimulate more useful answers. The summaries at the end of each interview section provide an equally diverse, and concordant set of top tips.
ASQ is a very personal book, as were its two predecessors in the Using Data Better trilogy. Sam’s style of thinking about thinking always links personal and professional experience and reflection to arrive at genuine human insights. If you’re in the ‘moving business’, that’s what you should always strive for.
The author’s style of thinking about thinking always links personal and professional experience and reflection to arrive at genuine human insights.
What, then, are the key ingredients to Using Data Better? ASQ revisits the ‘golden rules of storytelling’ outlined in NbN:
- Keep it simple
- Find and use relevant data
- Avoid false positives (…and spurious correlations…)
- Beware the curse of knowledge
- Know your audience
- Talk human
It also recalls the four stages of getting to insights – “profound and useful understandings of people, issues, topics or things”, the STEP Prism of Insight of HTBI:
- Sweat (the hard graft to get the data)
- Timeout (creating the time and space for – sometimes unexpected – connections to form)
- Eureka (that precious moment when it suddenly clicks)
- Proof (the essential final step where gut feelings are validated, and why questions answered with evidence)
This all comes together in six universal principles for asking smarter questions:
- Curiosity (the epistemophilic instinct of wanting to know more, of always asking ‘why?’)
- Open-mindedness (embrace your inner Socrates and start from the knowledge of knowing nothing)
- Preparation (always ask ‘what’s going on here’)
- Openness (don’t prescribe an answer; open questions usually generate more interesting responses)
- Simplicity (in Sam’s words, “like shorter letters, simpler questions take longer to craft”)
- Listening (listen to hear and understand, not to speak)
ASQ is not an airport bookshop-style $5.99 quick-read. Its 280 pages are packed with stories from Sam’s and his interviewees’ journeys through academia and practice, learning and application. Many if not all paths lead back to ancient Athens, to Socrates and Aristotle, to the Stoics. To the principles of classical storytelling through the three stages of thesis, antithesis and finally, synthesis. To the art of rhetoric, combining feeling or emotion (pathos), reason or logic (logos) and character or nature (ethos) of the communicator to generate impact, to influence and persuade.
And those are just the foundations. A deep interest in, and understanding of both psychology, and data as evidence adds to this comprehensive account of how the right questions can lead to the right insights that help tell the right stories to address our manifold wicked problems.
In addition to Greek philosophy, modern psychology, and data-driven storytelling, another thread running through ASQ, and indeed the entire Using Data Better trilogy, is education (especially Western educational systems): what we teach, how we teach, and what it means. This is a topic Sam is particularly passionate and critical about as he sees “curiosity and creativity stunted by education”.
He praises Simon Sinek for his childlike embrace of the why question, which infants ask upwards of 40,000 times in the years before they start school – at which point the focus switches to giving answers instead of asking questions. Thus Sam pleads with Roger Waters (‘Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!’) and educationalist cum TED celebrity Sir Ken Robinson for the nurture of curiosity and creativity. In doing so, he argues for a new curriculum of at least two mastered languages (mother tongue plus one), applied mathematics (in particular applied to finance, statistics and data storytelling, creative expression, coding, logic, sports for physical and mental wellbeing, meditation and mindfulness, and critical faculty and judgement.
The author argues for a new curriculum of at least two mastered languages (mother tongue plus one), applied mathematics (in particular applied to finance, statistics and data storytelling, creative expression, coding, logic, sports for physical and mental wellbeing, meditation and mindfulness, and critical faculty and judgement.
The two he highlights, not least from the perspective of ‘moving storytelling’, are creative expression and critical faculty and judgement.
There is a lot to learn in ASQ, an account abundant with relevant observations and insights for all of us in the ‘moving business’ (whether as practitioners, or educators, or both). My personal favourite, which I will encourage colleagues, client and students to embrace: “When someone presents you with a set of data or a data-rich presentation, become a four-year-old again.”
Do that, and inevitably you will be using data better.
 A phrase coined by the US business writer Dan Pink in To Sell is Human, referring to hearts and minds rather than furniture. Pink features throughout the trilogy.
 In a recent conversation, leading scholar of the measurement and evaluation of communication, Professor Jim Macnamara, described this to me as ‘frontloading the research’: giving more weight to the formative, planning phase of research. See also Organizational Listening in Public Communication: Emerging Theory and Practice (Macnamara 2022).