The 4 Best Questions to Ask Vague Clients

Posted by on Jan 25, 2014 in Business Writing | 0 comments

As we’ve gone over a couple of times in previous blogs which you can read, here, here, and ALSO here, (But not here because this is a link to a hockey score from last month that we threw in for no apparent reason. Nice work, Maple Leafs) vague clients who give you no particular direction can be very tough to write for. Having the right questions handy, however, can make the process much, much easier. Here are four of them – because that’s the arbitrary number of questions we decided to highlight. There are literally trillions of questions you can ask your clients, although realistically most of them won’t help you much. Some examples of questions that WON’T help are….

“What are your thoughts on the designated hitter?”

“Is a dragon still a dragon if it can’t fly or breathe fire? Or at that point is it just a dinosaur?”

“How many raisins can you fit in your shoe?”

“Do you have any surefire ways to get pee out of a mailbox?”

“Hats. They’re sure, something, huh?”

There’s a pretty damn good chance none of those questions will help. So let’s move on to the questions that will.

1) What is your final objective? What do you ultimately want to get from this project?

I recently wrote a short film for a client who didn’t give me much to go on at first. He was a very visual client with a passion for high-end automobiles. All I knew based on his pitch was that he wanted a short film with a lot of badass cars in it. He was very thorough and when we met, he provided me with an entire folder full of bright, colorful images of engines, tires, and slick paint jobs. He was very enthusiastic, but when I pressed him for more, he’d send me a few more images of Lamborghinis and Ferarris instead of, ya know, plot points or a direction for the story, which was what I needed.

You’ll get these type of clients a lot – people who are great to work with and very passionate about their ideas, but simply have no knowledge of what your objective as a writer happens to be. They aren’t trying to be difficult, they simply don’t realize that what they’re providing doesn’t really assist you. It would be like if I commissioned him to do an engine rebuild by telling him, “I want my car to look freaking awesome going through downtown. And like on the bridge. It’s got to just make sweet ass sounds going over the bridge.” Me telling him all the places I wanted my car to look cool doesn’t give him any tangible information about the engine itself or what I wanted rebuilt.

Asking about his end game helped me immensely on the project. It turned out that he was an actor who was looking to star in a film that he hoped would feature his diverse on-screen abilities. Also, he wanted to feature the upscale cars because he had access to some amazing vehicles through friends at car shows and figured it was something unique his film could include that most others couldn’t. His instincts were correct. What local filmmakers have access to their buddy’s Lambo collection? For free?

This dude. And that’s about it.

Those two bits of information made it much, much easier to construct a script. Why? Because I found out his main objective – to feature his acting abilities in an action script that contained a lot of the cars he had access to. I now knew that his character had to be diverse and thrown quickly into varying scenarios that would let him show both a tough side and a softer side. I now had a framework to build a story around. Now every time I came up with a new idea, I could ask myself if that idea fit into the framework. If it did, I explored it. If it didn’t, I scrapped it. And together, we came up with a pretty sick little action script.

2) What is the tone we’re trying to establish?

This is a critical question and asking it will save you a lot of wasted work. This is probably the area where most clients and writers miss the high five most often. How can you and your client end up with completely different concepts about a project when you’re discussing exactly the same ideas? Trust me, if you don’t ask this question, it’s very possible – even highly likely.

I was once asked to write the landing page for a law firm that was described to me as “young & hip.” I was given the following overview of the company and a bunch of facts and figures about what they did.

We’re edgy, funny, and cool and that’s what we want to portray to the public through our website.

The trouble was I never asked them for their particular definition of “edgy” and “funny”. So I wrote a landing page that was edgy and funny, pulling no punches about the type of communication and copyright law they practiced. It was a chuckle fest and a right cross to the jaw at the same time, which is what they specifically asked for. The only problem was that their definition of edgy and funny was actually…
We’re marginally less stuffy than our competition.

What they REALLY wanted was dry and informative with a bad lawyer pun mixed in here and there.

At Stickles & Pudney, you won’t OBJECT to the way we do things!

EDGY! My god boys, be careful or you’ll plunge into the canyon. We’ll sell you the whole seat but you’ll only need STICKLES & PUDNEY!

Anyway, that’s why it’s always a good idea to ask about tone.

3) What is your intended audience?

This question basically acts as a follow up to question #2. Knowing the audience your client is attempting to reach will help with lots of things that simply knowing the tone and the objective won’t. For instance, if you find out the audience happens to be rabid football fans, you won’t have to explain terms like “the line of scrimmage” or “pass interference.” But if the client wants to market to casual football fans who might only watch once a month at their brother’s barbecue, then those terms might be too specific and require an explanation if you even use them at all. You have to approach the project differently.

As an example of targeting a specific audience, watch any commercial intended for the elderly. Apparently there’s research out there that suggests your script must contain older Americans carefully explaining all sides of their particular situation to their family around a dinner table.
You’ll need dialogue like this.

“Wow, this pot roast is delicious, Linda. I’m so glad you’re all here for my 71st birthday party.”

“Dad, what were you saying about your condition as we were outside shooting hoops with the grandkids?”

“Ah yes, as most of you know, I have a condition called fumplydosis, which is a rare and sometimes fatal thinning of the nipples caused by years of listening to funk music at high altitudes. I’m treating it, although rare but serious side effects of my medication include tooth decay, clubfoot, and a severe aversion to certain parts of your own garage.”

“Wow, dad, in that case, you’d better make sure your life insurance policy is up to date.”

“I know, but how can I be certain my plan covers my condition?”

“Well I heard about a low cost life insurance plan through Mutual of Pennsyltucky that provides $50,000 of coverage for only $17.42 a month.”

“17.42 a month, huh? Are there any other options?”

“Sure there are. I’ll list the nineteen I know right now along with all the pros and cons while the audience is desperately waiting for overtime to start.”

“Boy, that’s a relief. I didn’t want all of you to worry so much about my final expenses.”

And who’s with me about “my final expenses” being under-the-radar creepy as a phrase. If it’s not the number one sneaky creepy phrase in America today, it’s squarely in the running. Anyway, on to question #4.

4) This is what I understand the project to be. Are we on the same page here?

This might actually be the most vital question of all because it lets you convey what you’ve heard. This question will allow the client to hear a summary of what information they’ve actually given you. Often times in meetings, people will forget stuff. Important stuff. They’re not doing it maliciously, it’s just that they’ve got a billion things to think about and one of the most important things they needed to tell you happened to slip their mind.

“So what I’m hearing is that your overall objective with this marketing campaign is to let people know about Mutual of Pennsyltucky’s low cost life insurance coverage, the audience we’re targeting is Americans over 65 and the tone of the project will be total information overkill. Do I have this right?”

“Oh no, I forgot to tell you that we also sell flavored oatmeal. We need to work that in there as well. For $17.42 a month you get life insurance and a box of flavored oatmeal shipped to your front door.”

“Ok. Well good to know. Tell me more about this oatmeal and why it’s linked to your insurance policies.”

It’s good for the client to hear what they’ve actually articulated – otherwise you might be halfway through the project already when they throw something insane like flavored oatmeal at you. And that’s not something you can easily just squeeze in. You now need to put in more work. The price goes up. The client gets cranky. Which leads to more work. And so on and so forth. It’s easier just to ask them if your grasp of the project is correct at the beginning.

So there you go – four questions that will really come in handy when working with vague clients. Whoops, actually, I thought of a fifth.

5) What’s the raunchiest thing you’ve ever said to a bus driver?

Nope, nope, sorry. That one was useless. Only use the first four.

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