PODCAST: Questions can be taken many ways

Estimated read time: 6 minutes

Asking questions in the best possible way can help journalists, brand journalists and content marketers tell better stories. But, asking them in a less than perfect way can impact the interview and fact-finding process, too. This podcast discusses what’s at stake.

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Hi there Christoph Trappe here with The Authentic Storytelling Project, and today I want to talk about questions.

Questions, of course, are important for us storytellers, brand journalists, journalists, content marketers, anybody who is talking to other people to get a story that we going to retell on any of the available channels. It’s a website or on TV then newspaper, whereever, but questions can be interesting. Sometimes, questions can be taken as statements and of course that can present a problem if the person interviewing is asking questions, but is really making a statement. We’re showing our opinion. They might try to answer that question differently than they would if they would’ve taken it just as a fact finding question. Sometimes, people try to please the person that they’re talking to so depending how we ask the question, it could happen that the person gives an answer that is actually not the best answer for the story, but it’s just the best answer in a social setting.

I’m not saying interviewers can’t have opinions. I know when I was a journalist, journalist at that time did not have any opinions and today they still say they don’t. I’ve been a journalist a number of years, but we were just trying to gather facts so it’s important to ask the correct questions and ask them in a way that people know we’re looking for facts. We’re looking for the details. We’re not necessarily trying to influence what you say.

People have opinions. Content marketers that work for an organization, brand journalist that work for an organization are a whole different ball game, of course you also have an opinion if I’m a blogger. I have an opinion and I’ll state it. I’ll share it with you. I’ll include it in my blog post so if you have an opinion, feel free to share it, but make sure that question is not just taken as this is how it is and hopefully your answer fits into my opinion.

Some people do indeed make statements when they just ask questions. There was a study done at one point, I think it was a few years ago where people looked at the amount of words the questioner asked and it turned out that a lot of the words were really a statement. They make a statement and then they’ll ask a question so that’s not really truly fact finding. Sometimes, questions can be taken as that you actually know something and so the example that happened the other day, I said to my six-year-old when we were at the gym together and she had basketball practice.

I said, “Did something just fall down?” and I thought I saw something. I wasn’t making a statement and she kept looking around like she was literally trying to find it, not just a casual look around, but she was looking to find it like I just told her something had fallen down, pick it up and I said again, “Did something just fall down?” I actually thought she was ignoring me for a second because she kind of turned around and looked around.

I said, “Hey, I don’t actually know if anything fell down. Did you think I said that something had fall down, please pick it up,” and she said, “Yes, I did,” and I didn’t say that and we couldn’t find whatever had fallen down. Maybe nothing had fallen down.

It might have just been something in the corner of my eye I saw and you know just turned out to be nothing had fallen down, but she took it as a statement so that’s kind of interesting. Think about that as people ask questions, yes, they might be showing their opinions, yet, they might be showing their intent, but how can we use those questions to get the best possible stories out of people and the best possible details and facts and how do we get to that?

The solution to all these things, ask good questions, don’t make statements, gather facts. That doesn’t mean we can’t have opinions. It doesn’t mean we don’t share with people what we think, but ask good questions.

Sometimes, open ended questions are by far the best ones. I know, if I go interview somebody and I want to find out about their story, sometimes I have to ask one question and I say “tell me about yourself. Tell me your story.” And that’s not even a question. That’s actually a statement, but you say that to people and they can they’ll start talking and then you can come up with follow-up questions,  based on what the person say. You can ask clarifying questions and now you’re not making statements about one thing or another. You’re really just gathering facts that you can use in your story or if you are somebody who is helping other people share their story now you can help them kind of summarize their stories.

The other solution for the person asked so if somebody ask me a question, don’t take them personally. If somebody says, “but how about this or why or how do you know?”, those question can sound threatening, but to any subject matter expert “how do you know” or “why is that” should not be a threatening question. It shouldn’t be taken that way, just answer the question, stay calm. You’re the expert. You know the answer. If you don’t know the answer, say “I don’t know, but I can look it up.”

I was in the exchange at one point with actually a person that works in the media industry and she said, “Hey, how about this and this and this? Do you know how people are being helped in this area?” and I said, “I really don’t know, but that’s really a question for so and so,” and this person says,”Well, I’m just wondering,” and I say, “I really don’t know, but we can give this person a call or we can send an email.”

We’re just talking, right, so don’t take questions personally. Don’t always try to pull out some intent that isn’t there. I remember when I was a newspaper reporter, police commanders asked me, “well, why are you asking?” and I would say, “I’m not even sure. I’m just asking to gather facts,” or they would say, “Where are you going with this story?” and I say, “I don’t even know. I’m just asking.” What happened? Why is this car being used instead of that car?” for example.

“Why you’re asking,” “I’m just asking to find out. I’m just curious,” so it’s kind of a back and forth and I think both sides can work on that. I’m not saying the police officers did anything wrong at all. It was just a personal example from a few years ago, but both sides can work together. Questions, don’t take offense. Answer the question. Ask follow-up questions. Ask a clarification question to the question, so, but something to keep in mind.

Questions can be taken in many ways. Sometimes, we might not get the best answers based on the words we pick, but we do have to ask questions to get to the facts of our stories and to be able to share them. Thanks for listening, Christoph Trappe; The Authentic Storytelling Project.