Who really bothers to write a brief in the real-world? Perhaps those agencies with multi-million pound brands on their books, and maybe even the occasional diligent client at the more ‘value conscious’ end of the spectrum.

Usually though, the project brief remains elusive – little more than a shared verbal understanding, explored in those first few, tentative conversations between freelancer and client before they embark on a new project together.

Done well, a brief does more than formalise what everyone needs to understand about a problem and how it’s to be solved. It prompts you to look at things from every angle, and ask important, often overlooked, questions – even if they can’t be answered yet.

A few years ago, I ploughed through various dry textbooks (finally, that PRINCE2 training manual came in useful) and blogs about writing good project briefs. From that exercise, I produced 20 excellent questions every would-be commercial problem-solver should ask at the beginning of a project.

Whether you’re a high-profile agency or a lowly freelancer in Leeds like me, these questions will unearth the crucial facts, or at least prompt people to dig deeper until they’re exposed.

Here are 5 of the best, with a downloadable project brief questionnaire including all 20 questions. Naturally, I’ve written this in the context of being a freelance event photographer and copywriter in Leeds, though any creative project stands to benefit.

1. Who approves this project as complete?

More often than you might think, who commissions the work and who approves it, aren’t the same person.

Here’s how it happens.

Imagine everything’s going swimmingly. In fact, client and freelancer alike are beginning to suspect things are going almost too well.

Then, with the finish line in sight, some high-ranking, hitherto unknown, senior director pops up and turns your project upside down. They want to have their say (rightly so), and are perfectly placed to do so – coming to the project just as it’s ready to fly out the door.

I’ve no problem accommodating people with different views; the issue here is when and how. Sometimes, well-intentioned clients shield themselves (and their freelancers) from erratic interventions like this, but it’s akin to spraying your fingertips with Lynx as a teenager to prevent your parents smelling the smoky whiff of those 10 L&Bs you’ve been experimenting with.

Sooner or later, everyone wants to stick their oar in on a high-profile project – there’s something about an impending deadline that encourages people to micro-manage or hunt for undeserved glory.

Far be it from me to interfere with the internal politics of any company I freelance for, but in my experience it’s better to get everyone involved sooner, with clear expectations of what input we need from them and when.

That might be feedback at milestones, or simple involvement by exception – only when things go wrong, or a decision needs to be made, do we escalate to senior level.

Finally, what ‘complete’ means depends on who you ask, and what constitutes a ‘satisfactory’ delivery can be entirely subjective, especially when you have lots of people involved.

If you’re the client, I recommend you nominate one person who ultimately decides when a project is complete, and we make explicit their criteria for success so, as a freelancer, I can work towards it.

2. Have you seen anyone solve a similar problem?

Every idea has its inspiration. This is about getting to the root of the brainwave that made you, my client, pick up the phone and hire me as your freelance copywriter in Leeds or event photographer.

Why? Because there’s no point in paying for a freelancer to second-guess your vision. If there’s already something similar and tangible out there that you want to replicate: bring it, show it and let’s build on it.

In the context of freelance copywriting or event photography; was it a competitor’s ad you saw? An image on TV? Or did you read an article in a magazine, or lift an idea from a book?

People say there’s no such thing as an original idea, and that creativity is just repackaging old ideas. I suspect there’s truth in both, plus a place for pure, inexplicable spontaneity.

All I know for certain is that it’s all connected when it comes to inspiration – however disjointedly. So reveal everything, however tenuous and obvious to your freelancer. It can only help improve the end product.

3. What keeps your audience awake at night?

If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know I love crowing on about writing for your reader, addressing what’s important to them and really pressing their buttons. That’s how you connect with people – through research and planning.

So this question’s about getting under the skin of your audience. ‘Audience’ is of course your customer, reader, client or whoever else you’re trying to influence, furnish with information, or persuade to do something.

OK, I don’t expect you to really know exactly what people think. The subtext to the question isn’t really to intrude upon their anxiety disorders. It’s to provoke discussion around a reader’s wider lifestyle and their underlying motivations.

I love asking people this question because you can see them pause and consider their answer, while they imagine someone else’s day and their innermost thoughts and feelings as it comes to a close.

Our objective is to understand their thought processes, what bothers them, the burdens in their life – these might give us revealing clues about a useful context in which to frame an idea. Perhaps we could pair our solution up with one of their burdens, providing it genuinely eases it, of course.

The answer might not be clear, but remember, that’s not the point – this is about provoking discussion and imagination.

Download your free questionnaire for better project briefs

Read part 2 of this article (published on 17th Feb 2016).