Ask the right questions at the right time, of the right person… including yourself.
Interviews can be formal or informal, and the level of intensity of questions asked ideally reflect the circumstances of the interview.
This is a practical exercise that you can utilise over and again in your writing research.
Write down a topic you need to research for a writing project – now or in the future.
Make a list of possible people to interview.
Choose one person from your list and learn as much as you can about them in relation to your chosen topic.
Brainstorm a list of possible questions to ask this person about your topic.
Cull this list to focus on the most appropriate questions, given the interviewee’s background.
Check each question to identify whether it is an Open Question or a Closed Question.
Re-write any Closed Questions, which would be more productive as Open Questions.
Arrange the questions in order, ready for your interview.
Familiarise yourself with the process you plan to follow, to give the interview every chance of running smoothly.
Enjoy the interview, be flexible, and be open to surprises…
In a recent post, I wrote about the role of questions in the writing process… from decision-making about what to write, through the research and planning stages, during the writing itself, and on to the marketing and promotional stages.
Now it’s time to consider how to word questions for the most effective results in different situations – beginning an interview, probing for more information, clarifying what has been said, or reflecting and closing at the end of an interview.
Questions fall into two categories – Closed Questions and Open Questions.
Closed Questions are those that can be answered with a single word or short phrase… yes, no, a name, a place, a time, a colour, and so on.
Open Questions encourage longer answers filled with information, thoughts, feelings, interests, ideas, and more.
The first word in a question can set it on a course to either a one-word answer, which can have a finality about it, or a more pondered and expansive answer.
Closed Questions tend to begin with words such as: Are…? Did…? Do…? Have…? Who…? When…? Where…? What…? Which…? A conversation or interview quickly becomes stilted and dries up, if a sequence of closed questions is asked.
Open Questions typically begin with words like: How…? Why…? What…? Which…? And Indirect Open Questions can start with: Tell me about… Describe…
Notice that What…? has a foot in both camps. It can be used in either closed or open questions. For example, ‘What time is it?’ is a closed question and only demands a one-word answer, while ‘What was it like to grow up there?’ is designed to elicit more information and would usually bring a longer answer.
Always remember these first words are a guide only. Thoughtful word choices can lead to more flexible answers to questions across categories. Take the word How…? as a beginning word, for instance. How…? usually sits on the open questions list, for questions like, ‘How do you think that would be different from the first time…?’ However, it is conceivable that one might simply ask, ‘How old is Joe?’ which is a closed question.
Familiarise yourself with the typical first words for both categories, but don’t get too hung-up on them. The important thing is to know one from the other, recognise when you’re using them, and make choices about which kind of question will serve you best in any situation.
Closed Questions and Open Questions each have a role to play in our writing life. With an understanding of their characteristic differences, it’s easy to decide how they might be used to advantage.
- when you first meet a person, to put them at ease and avoid overwhelming them
- when you want a quick, factual answer
- when gathering data
- when compiling multiple-choice questionnaires
- when an interviewee goes off track and you want to re-focus
- for clarification.
Open Questions …
- encourage people to be more open
- allow people to reveal more, or less, of themselves, depending on their comfort level
- stimulate reflection
- increase the likelihood of expansion on a subject
- allow you to go deeper into a subject
- allow you to learn more than anticipated
- can lead to surprise revelations
- lead to deeper connections between people
- create more understanding
- lead to a more satisfying experience for both parties
While closed questions are useful, open questions are usually more fruitful. A good rule of thumb is to ask open questions unless a closed question is more appropriate in the circumstances.
Think about the purpose of each question and the characteristics of both styles of questioning, then formulate each question accordingly. Consider following closed questions with open questions, to keep conversations/interviews flowing without making others feel uncomfortable.
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