OPINION18 May 2023

Start not with ‘why’ but with ‘so what?’

AI Opinion Trends UK

If ChatGPT can give us all the answers, surely it is how we question that becomes more important? Leanne Tomasevic and Grant Feller argue that we must unlearn our obsession with answers to become infatuated with questions.

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ChatGPT is going to decimate research and force us into obscurity at a frightening pace. At least that’s what we’re being told. The reality, however, might be not so dystopian. Indeed, artificial intelligence could transform our industry for the better by forcing us not to do something that it can’t – ask better questions to glean more precise, useful and impactful answers.

We recently ran a workshop for the banking industry and used ChatGPT to kick off proceedings, typing in this question: Why are banks facing a reputational crisis right now?

The answers, without getting into detail, were: cybersecurity, money laundering, data privacy, ethical behaviour and climate change. None of them were wrong, but what about lack of trust, poor customer service, global financial pressures, branch closures, cost of living crisis, bankers’ bonuses…?

The answers ChatGPT gave weren’t wrong but, because the question was so broad, they weren’t right either.

It’s why we’re convinced that we need to adopt different kinds of questioning techniques to make our industry more relevant and utilise the undoubted benefits that AI offer us. For us, that means combining the skills of a journalist with data approaches. Asking questions through a blended behavioural and journalistic lens results in answers that are less artificial and far more intelligent.

Everyone has probably heard about the newsroom being one of the most stressful working environments, but few understand the intensity of what happens long before the drama of editor tantrums and sweat-inducing deadlines. The blank sheet of paper, the 9am terror of not having a story for the next edition, the frantic calls to find the right person to help with the right piece at just the right time. And of course the most difficult task of all – answering the ‘So what?’

‘Yeah, great idea but so what does it all mean?’

That’s the key learning for us in insights. What is the ‘so what’? We’ve been addicted to asking ‘why’ for so long – that the why is more important, especially when we have so much data – that it has become a default for what we need to ask. ‘Why’ delivers obvious historical answers, it doesn’t throw things forward and it can lack the ability to provide the implications our clients need to make the right decisions, at speed and with impact.

We need to develop more questioning mindsets, challenge ourselves to think differently and apply new questioning techniques so that we can elevate the influence of our industry – an influence that urgently needs to be elevated in the face of fierce economic and algorithmic headwinds.

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once said: ‘The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.’ Just because we are in the business – and the science – of answers, it does not mean that we are also not in the business of questions.

We need to stop asking ‘why’ to understand the ‘why’. Even asking ‘why’ of the world’s most intelligent computer programme doesn’t really get us anywhere.

Instead, seeking answers far outside of our industry might be even more beneficial – something everyone in our workshop accepted when they stepped in the door but truly understood when they left later that day. Journalism is just one of those collaborative arenas and, for us, getting to grips with its techniques has been an extraordinarily empowering process. Headlines, audiences, contexts, rewriting assumptions, question (rather than brain) storming, seeking the thread, embracing the knowledge gaps, rethinking at every key moment to ask what the data is really saying. 

In our industry, we are always talking about being curious but are we being curious enough, or thinking how it really translates in our work? Perhaps we can adopt a more provocative, newsroom-style teamwork ethic to process information and offer greater value to our clients. Perhaps we need to be less comfortable with answers and more comfortable with asking harder questions. Perhaps we need to rethink and unlearn and instead of starting with ‘why’, start with ‘so what’.

Such as: ‘So what’s the best way to prevent ChatGPT taking our jobs?’

Answer: Ask better questions than that.

Or, as ChatGPT just replied to us: ‘While AI can automate some parts of market research, it still requires human expertise and decision-making.’

In other words, hold the front page!

Leanne Tomasevic is managing director of Truth and Grant Feller is founder of EveryRung