Seth Godin wrote a couple of days ago on how critical it is to ask good questions often. I think a lot about this, being a journalist and doing this sort of thing all day, so I pulled together some tips on how to do it better. They’re specifically for journalists but they apply to asking questions in any setting.
1) Check your intention. Have you gone into the interview having done a ton of homework on the person you’re interviewing? Have you read other articles on the subject to figure out what’s already been asked? This rules out 99% of dumb questions that stop the interview before it can begin.
2) “Stop stepping on their sound.”
One of my instructors and CNN reporter Cheryl Jackson used to tell us that it’s tempting to urge the subject on with uh-huhs, I hear yous, etc. but we should “stop stepping on their sound” so there’s a clean sample of the person talking to use in your video package. Obviously this is just practical since you can’t use the clip if you’re saying “uh huh” in the middle of what they’re saying, but it also applies to any interview. It’s incredible what people will review to you when you’re just sitting there, listening, shutting up.
3) Do your research and show it. Ben Casnocha and Ramit Sethi, in this webcast which outlines how to ask good questions of a mentor, recommend asking for a preferred option among several well-researched alternatives. It shows thought and research ahead of time. You can use this advice in trying to figure out what to ask another person. It helps you stay specific, which gets a more specific and more interesting answer out of who you’re interviewing.
4) What’s the one thing you’re dying to know about the person, that no one ever asks? Ask THAT.
5) Steal a few of these (they work wonders!):
-What’s the one question you wish someone would ask you, that you never do? (obviously best for subjects who are interviewed frequently)
-How does it (it=the newsworthy event, the reason you’re interviewing this person, their job, what they’ve gone through, etc.) make you feel feel? (Again, this one is from Cheryl Jackson. This phrase is also magic. I use it constantly).
-Summarize briefly in one sentence what you think the person told you. Then say, “Tell me where I’m wrong.” This one is from Martha Beck. It frees you to say what you think is going on while allowing the other person to validate it, without them feeling like they’re being attacked.
6) Remember the reader.
Often I’ve been in a position where I have to ask a question that may offend someone. This comes down to trust. If the subject of your interview trusts you, they’ll often tell you things you have no idea why they would reveal to anyone, let alone a journalist. And sometimes you do have to ask the tough questions of that person, knowing this may tick them off and end the interview and a possible future relationship with them (as a source or otherwise).
When you don’t know what to ask, or you’re not sure if a question crosses the line and then offends the other person, think about what’s in the best interest of the person reading your story. If they need to know, it’s your responsibility to ask. If you’re smart, you can figure out a way to ask it respectfully, while still asking for the information you need.
And BE SPECIFIC. It shows that you’re thinking and you’re working hard, which goes a long way toward getting the other person to trust you.
What are other tips that you’ve used for asking questions of interview subjects?