How to strengthen your question muscle

Naomi Henderson is founder and CEO of RIVA Market Research, Rockville, Md. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title “Asking ‘good’ questions.”

Some months back, I was paging through Parade magazine (it comes with the Sunday Washington Post each week) and while I always like reading about celebrities, this time it became hard to concentrate on the article contents because the interview questions kept grabbing my attention.

Last year, in writing Secrets of a Master Moderator, I spent a lot of time on a chapter about asking the right questions of respondents. The impetus grew out of noticing I had fallen into a trap over the years of asking questions that fell into these categories:

• POAIQ (part of the answer in the question): “What makes you grocery shop after midnight – is it because they are restocking or because there are no crowds?”

• Leading Qs: “Do you ever think about retiring?” (Could lead to a simple yes/no with no explanation, requiring an additional probe to follow up.)

In the chart below is a list of some of the questions that were included in the Parade articles. I could see the person asking the questions had a strong point of view or was looking for a specific answer.

I think these questions rob the reader of a deeper insight about the person being interviewed and make the interview more about the one asking the questions than the one answering the questions. So, just for fun, I rewrote the questions. Look over each pair and see if you think the revision provides an opportunity to glean more than top-of-mind answers.

Parade question

RIVA-revised question

  • Did anything change in your career when you hit your 40s?
  • What, if anything, changed in your career when you hit 40?
  • Why isn’t Jason Segel writing the next Muppets movie?
  • What are some reasons Jason Segel isn’t writing the next Muppets movie?
  • Did the director watch the foreign version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo before directing the English version?
  • What can you tell me about the director’s decision to watch or not watch the foreign version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo?
  • Is Nancy Grace still married?
  • What information is available on Nancy Grace’s marital status?
  • Did Tom Hanks meet the queen when he was in England?
  • Where can I find out if Tom Hanks met the queen on his trip to England?
  • Why did you start a foundation?
  • What led to the creation of a foundation in your name?
  • Why did you wait seven years to announce you had a medical condition?
  • Seven years elapsed between your diagnoses and your release of information about your medical condition. What were some reasons you waited?
  • You seem happy. Are you?
  • What can you tell me about your level of happiness these days?
  • Do I have to tip when restaurant service is poor?
  • What do you know about the rules on tipping when service at a restaurant is poor?
  • Some people would be so devastated by the diagnosis they’d contemplate suicide. Did you ever?
  • When you were at a low point a few years back, what thoughts crossed your mind when things looked dark and dismal?

I find myself mentally rewriting questions I hear others asking out in the world. One good thing about attending to questions around me is that it sharpens my listening ability, so I can hear a good question when it comes.

Further, by paying attention to poor questions and mentally rewriting them, I hone my ability to write “true” questions: ones that are neutral, non-leading and let the one answering say whatever they are willing to say without feeling wrong or grilled.

Next time you read or hear a celebrity interview, mentally revise the questions so they get the best data possible. Use the exercise as a way to continually strengthen your research-question muscle.

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4 Responses to How to strengthen your question muscle

  1. Annie Pettit says:

    I don’t disagree at all that we need to employ more careful question wording to avoid introducing bias. However, did you notice that every single revised question is LONGER than the original question. We already know people don’t like reading (who IS still reading this comment?) and now we want them to read even more? Just an observation.

  2. By watching celebrity interviews and their personal experiences we get an idea about interviews. We can also overcome problems they face.

  3. Kathleen Gilbert says:

    I have found that by starting with a single, broad question that invites a narrative, I get very rich data. It’s essentially Tom Wengraf’s SQUIN (single question inducing narrative) approach. Basically, I restate the focus of the study and invite them to tell their story (e.g., “I’d like you to start at the point when you knew there was a problem and tell me what happened.”) Usually, I try to stay out of the way as much as possible and only ask questions when more depth is needed, and because they focus on gathering details, they’re automatically open-ended. (e.g., “I’m not sure what you mean by ‘X’; what exactly is that?”).

  4. Amy says:

    Great article, Naomi. Re-imagining the leading or non-neutral questions we hear or read sounds like an interesting, useful and fun technique for improving our own question-asking abilities. I’m usually good about staying away from leading questions, but I do on occasion ask POAIQ questions. I’m going to try out this exercise and see what I can learn from it.

    @Annie – Yes, these revised questions are longer, but the important thing is the quality of the response that is elicited, which hinges on how well the question is asked or phrased. Sometimes longer questions get us better answers. If the article or research report is of interest to me as a researcher or decision-maker, then I’m going to read the questions in their entireity. Being concise can definitely be a good thing, but not just for the sake of being short and potentially capturing more superficial insights or information. I also believe that if the interview questions are to be posted in an article or appendix, they should reflect the original ways in which they are posed (i.e., word for word).

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