Use Sherlock Holmes techniques to give good communications advice

Sherlock1Giving good communications advice requires the investigative skills of Sherlock Holmes and the practical wisdom of Dr Watson.

When the famous detective takes on a case he listens carefully to his potential client and invariably reads around the subject in the news.

Sherlock doesn’t rush to the solution

Sherlock asks the client whether they have any ideas themselves concerning the solution to the problem, crime or mystery. He doesn’t rush straight to a solution – even though he very often already knows the answer. No, he first of all looks for clues.

Dr Watson meanwhile brings useful practical skills and knowledge, drawing on his knowledge of medicine and experience as an army surgeon. Sherlock finally solves the case and explains the incredible chain of deductions which led to his conclusion. The client is in usually in awe.

Sherlock2It’s like this in communications too when the communication professional is sought out for advice from a client or an in-house senior manager.

Define the real communications problem

The communicator listens to the client to understand their needs, and gets a feel for the wider communications context. She then asks questions to define and clarify the communications issue before asking if the client has any ideas of their own to contribute.

She asks more questions to define the real communications problem, not the problem the client initially thought they had.

Client needs to feel listened to and understood

Sherlock3And she doesn’t rush in to answer the question, partly because she may reach a faulty conclusion. But more importantly the client won’t feel they have been properly listened to and their needs understood. The adviser has to invest the time to demonstrate she is actively listening in order to build trust with the client.

The communications professional asks the right questions and develops insight, before going away and searching for further ‘clues’ to explore her working theories.


It is the communicator’s practical communication skills, honed over a career of careful study and application, that enables her to identify clues, weigh the evidence and make wonderful deductions.

But this is possibly where the analogy ends because no matter how brilliant your communication skills are, you cannot always expect your client to be in awe. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson were only works of fiction after all.

Photos: BBC

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My article published in the Journal of Internal Communication

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