Are your questions getting the best answers?

I keep six honest serving-men,
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When,
And How and Where and Who.
– Rudyard Kipling

I’ve been asking questions professionally all my life. For newspapers, radio stations and for BBC Television News. When I stopped running round the world as a television producer, I started training journalists. One of the courses we offered was on asking effective questions.

A lot of reporters I worked with used to complain that their interviewees didn’t give them strong quotes. When we looked at the notes or listened to the tapes we found out why. There was nothing wrong with the answers – but there were big problems with the questions.

If we are careless, many of our “questions” actually limit the answer we get. They may generate a yes/no monosyllabic response. They may provide an escape route for someone looking to evade responsibility. Or they may be so ill-structured that they provoke an unfocused reply.

If you are hiring someone, or asking a client for specifics of a project, or conducting an appraisal session, you need hard-working questions.

You need to have an interview strategy. And you need to decide how to phrase the questions to elicit the information or response you need.

A quick tip is to make sure 80 per cent of your questions start with how, or what, or why.

Keep the questions simple and uncluttered. Don’t inject your own assumptions or pre-conceptions into the questions. Don’t try to impress. 

Simple questions have a wonderful ability to draw out really revealing answers.

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