Over the weekend, I interviewed a number of artists as part of the upcoming Art-O-Matic festival, a creative free-for-all in the DC area which is returning after a few years on hiatus. The organizers have asked me to put together some promotional content in advance of the opening on May 18. Twice during the first interview, my subject started her answer with “good question.” Those are two words I don’t take lightly. Asking questions, in any context, has become a lost art. And it it’s because of 4 reasons:
- The questioner cares more about themselves than the answer.
- The questioner already knows the answer, or at least the answer they want.
- The questioner does not have a question or hasn’t done enough research to ask a worthwhile question.
- The questioner is afraid to ask any question that is deemed to be confrontational.
Whether you are in the position of journalist, or consultant, or group member, or job applicant, or any other situation that requires you gather information to use to your advantage, you have only two things at your disposal: background and questions.
I started my career in sports journalism. After a few years, I got bored with it. Most sports journalists just wanted to be athletes but now are content to hang around athletes. These folks aren’t covering the Middle East for a reason. Eventually, I moved onto business meetings and empty questions meant to prompt exchange of boardroom lingo. Then, I moved to the education conference circuit and the ritual of giving a lecture as a preface to an eventual question. In all cases, these questions are symptomatic of the 4 shortcomings above.
A popular phrase is “there’s no such thing as a dumb question.” The reasoning here is that not asking a question, any question, is a worse offense than asking a question that everyone else in present company would deem to be unnecessary or inappropriate. That of course is a dumb premise.
There are plenty of dumb questions everyday in all walks of life. They are asked by lazy questioners who did not take time to properly think ahead to imagine what type of answer they are looking for. Dumb questions come at a basic opportunity cost. They are noise, sucking up time and attention, where other, more pointed questions could have been asked and a most meaningful exchange of information could have been achieved. These are some examples of dumb questions:
- I have a theory…[etc]…Don’t you agree?
- Do you think it’s a case of [this] or [that]? Could it be a case of [this other thing or a 4th possibility]?
- Is there ROI?
- Can you talk about [a past event]?
There is a very simple formula for asking a question: Premise + Who/what/where/when/why/how. You set the context, then you ask the question. Here’s an example:
- You have written that [X] does not work in modern society. How did you arrive at that theory?
That’s all it takes. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be.
Finally, not all good questions have to be provocative or even original. One of the best questions, maybe ever, is one that you hear multiple times a day: “How can I help you?” The genius in that questions is its marriage of directness (what action are you asking me to take) and open-endedness (any good answer needs to be specific, otherwise, there can be no help).
- Sir, you are complaining about a number of situations that are adversely affecting you. How can I help you?
All your questions should be this good.