The value of the right questions, Part 1

girl with her moleskine

I've done a handful of interviews for the presentation I'm giving later this week, which has renewed my appreciation for the skill involved in asking the right questions.

My previous experience with this valuable journalistic skill has been minimal, but similarly instructive. It took an shockingly long time to draft a set of questions for Seth Godin that would be useful (to my readers) and worthy (of Seth's time) for my leg of the Linchpin "book tour" last year. You wonder why those legendary Playboy or Rolling Stone interviews from Back in the Day are so good? Or, for that matter, why Colin Marshall and Jesse Thorn have such compulsively listen-able podcasts today?1

It's the questions, stupid.

Good questions make for interesting answers, and interesting answers get you thinking about all kinds of questions you suddenly want to ask yourself. Good questions wake you up to the world around you, and get you reengaged with life. It's a huge gift to be interviewed by a smart, generous, curious interviewer. First, and foremost, you have a blast. A conversation all about the things that interest you, with someone who is (purportedly, anyway) interested in how you came to be that way? What's not to love?

But what's really wonderful about a great interview, an interview designed to liberate valuable information from your skull for the purposes of sharing it with other people who might then learn from it, is that it forces you to focus, but frees you to do it. You could wander off into the poppy fields, and I do, frequently, but there's that nice interviewer, ready to lead you back to safety. Or on to a more interesting topic. Or whatever. Someone else does all of that hacking-a-path-through-the-jungle stuff. Someone else keeps an eye on the map and the compass, and allows you to wander around, commenting on this or that fascinating sight, and the eight things it makes you think about, in glorious freedom. Rather than facing a blank page, which I realize is my main job as a writer, but which absolutely gets tiring at times, someone gives you some structure, some prompts: What about this? And this? And this other thing?

It's such a valuable thing for showing you parts of yourself you might not otherwise see and training you to think in a way you might not ordinarily think that if people are not lining up to interview you, I'd look for ways to give yourself this gift. The Proust Questionnaire is a great place to start: not only has it withstood the test of time, but you can compare your answers (afterwards, please!) to a world thinker so great, they ended up naming the damned thing after him.

My friend Gretchen Rubin (of Happiness Project fame) is terrific at posing thought-starters. Check out her question frameworks for coming up with resolutions that will be more satisfying to pursue, making better decisions, keeping your temper. I also enjoy reading the interviews Gretchen does with people she's interested in. Like the Proust Questionnaire, the questions remain consistent, so you could certainly use them to do your own (unpublished) Gretchen Rubin Happiness interview.

Whatever your means, it might be useful to start turning your attention to good questions, what makes them, where to find them, rather than focus quite so much on tracking down answers. Not that there isn't still a place for plain, old information (God Bless Wikipedia, and long may it reign!), but the knowledge that you piece together as the result of good questions is the information that really keeps on giving.

It's a now-hackneyed tradition to end a blog post or seed one's Facebook wall or cop out on meaningful Twitter contribution by asking a question. Too bad, because asking good questions is not just a way to gain eyeballs or get a break from the relentless feeding of the beast or incite the troops to (heaven help us) "join the conversation," but to stimulate actual, creative thought.

Still, this is a post about questions, so I will scatter a few about on my way out the door, mostly as fodder for you to think about as you move through your day. (Although the comments are, of course, open, they're even unmoderated again, assuming you've previously proven yourself to be a friendly nation.)

  • Where is the last place you (unhappily) found yourself that felt so familiar, you were finally moved to take action?
  • What is your favorite color? Was it always? When did it change? Where is it in your life right now?
  • Replace "color" (above) with "book," "song," "teacher," "friend," or "food."
  • What five songs make you the happiest when you hear them? Have you learned the words to them?
  • What song could you sing right now in its entirety? Do you like this song?
  • What is your greatest fear? How are you living with it (or not)?


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COMING UP WEDNESDAY: A fun question-and-answer exercise to lively up your next gathering. You're subscribed, right?

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Speaking of someone who knows how to ask the right questions, my longtime blogging pal, Marilyn, did a really challenging one with me that she's shared on her new site, La Salonniere, today. I'm especially thrilled because I love all the previous interviews so much: between her eclectic interests and her devotion to learning how things work, she is one amazing interviewer!

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1In the case of the live interviewer, it's all about the ability to improvise. Jesse probably has the edge here, improv fanatic that he is, although that could be my bias toward comedic presentation. I'm also mad for Adam Carolla, whose podcast was killer out of the gate. Nothing that 20 years of assiduous practice on terrestrial radio and crappy comedy stages can't buy you.

Image by Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.