That's A Really Bad Question

Our OMMA Mobile conference is fast approaching (Feb. 7 in New York), and I am about to prep my moderators so they in turn can prep our panelists. As the programmer for this full-day event, it is my time to start obsessing and resisting the urge to micro-manage the content.

"Good to see someone else get the brunt of your obsessive personality," my daughter is always quick to offer. "By the way, that OCD gene -- it can be recessive, right?"

But the thing is -- to obsess for just a moment -- nothing kills a conversation or an interview quite like a really bad question. And it is rare that an interviewee will tell you how bad the question really was. Usually, they will say "that's a good question," which is code for "I don't have an answer." Alternatively, if a high-level executive at a major firm is involved, it could mean that the coterie of PR people in the room for the conference call are waving their hands wildly to shut him down. My daughter thinks I am obsessive. She hasn't dealt with a PR person in full hyperkinetic message management mode.



But getting the questions right, I think, is half the battle at a conference. Way too many attendees come up to me after a panel to tell me what they would have liked to ask. Audience inhibition -- or just that fear of asking the bad question -- often suppresses the issues that conference audiences really want answered.

And so, before the inhibiting crowds gather at OMMA Mobile, I want to ask readers to front-load the program with some of their own questions. As I prep my moderators for the various panels, I invite you to submit questions I can pass on to the moderators. The agenda and attendees are here:

And my email is

Our theme this time (although not the exclusive topic) is "Enter the Giants." The keynote from Nokia's Jeremy Wright and early panels will focus on the entry of major media, hardware, and Web brands into the mobile space -- and what this means for an eco-system that until now has been a brave, innovative but relatively small start-up community. Executives from the big brands will be there to discuss their master plans, and their counterparts among the endemic mobile companies in search and social networking, video and content to will be there to explain how they maintain a unique standing. How will the decisions these two groups make affect your businesses and your marketing plans? What would you like to know from them?

The afternoon sessions will take up a number of highly topical issues, including on- and off-deck strategies and the implications of open platforms for marketers.

I am especially eager for input on the final panel of the day, my own "Mythbusters" group. I have asked some of my most trusted contacts among the mobile ad networks to identify and address some of the chief misconceptions and challenges they encounter as they try to breach agency and brand firewalls. I wanted to end the show by addressing head-on the questions and myths that continue to retard mobile marketing growth. Is there really not enough scale here? Are CPMs really outlandish? Is it really just a youth medium? Is it just too hard to put together a mobile campaign and navigate the technology? I am sure those of you in the field have many more clichés and claims you would like to see put down once and for all. Send me your suggestions -- and the panel and I will winnow them down to a select few.

OK, truth be told, finding the right questions is a bit of an obsession with me. You see, as a youth I was traumatized by a Nobel Prize winner. I wrote my undergrad thesis back in the late ‘70s on the novels of a recent winner of the Nobel, and by a strange twist of fate I had the opportunity to interview him one-on-one. The writer was notoriously cranky and self-important. He started out by trying to be nice, but within a half hour of my asking about his novels, he stopped and said, "You know this is not very good. You are smarter than your questions."

He was a jerk, but he was probably right. And he knew how to write a great, haunting sentence like "You are smarter than your questions." I have to say that over the years I often attend conferences where I am reminded of this great jackass's phrasing. Sometimes I wonder whether everyone on the panels, including the moderators, were smarter than their own questions. I always suspect they had more insightful things to say than the platform and situation allowed.

One of the tricks I do as a moderator during prep work is to ask the panelists what they are curious to know about their fellow panelists' businesses. In other words, we have to aim towards questions that don't just "spark conversation." We have to aim towards questions that need to be answered, where the response may actually help someone improve their own business. That is a tall order, I know. In asking our audience to supply us with some of the questions for OMMA Mobile, I am hoping to seed these panels with questions that you want and need to have answered. Don't be shy. The microphone is off. No one is around to judge the dumbness of the questions or to hear your voice flutter.

And that Nobelist --- well, he is long gone and only haunts my dreams.



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