Asking Questions

One of the hardest things to teach in a consulting space is how to ask questions. Yet our work as content strategists requires it: we need to get our clients, our users, and others talking in order to learn about their hopes, dreams, goals, struggles, the words they use, the phrases that confuse them, and so much more.

Yet time and again I witness others – and fall into the trap myself – asking questions that result in blank stares. Here are a few tips to asking questions that work:

Be Direct

We often like to preface questions with “let’s just discuss” or “let’s get a conversation going” to help people feel comfortable. No one wants to start an interrogation. But vague questions are harder to answer than direct ones. Don’t ask “tell me about your audience.” Ask “tell me about your audience’s top challenges.”

Don’t Provide Examples

I’m terrible at this. I often end a question with “such as…” Unfortunately, that means I’ve led the witness. It’s far better to finish the question, take a deep breath, and wait for them to come up with their own examples or directions.

Be Patient

Again, guilty. Actually, that’s why I provide examples! No sooner have I finished a question then I worry they don’t know what I mean. But when I can hold back the “I mean something along the lines of…” or “does that make sense?” and instead wait, productive responses come.

Send Questions in Advance

If you really want to have a conversation, get the questions over first so that the client or user can feel prepared to join or even lead the discussion.

Practice and Prepare

None of this is obvious or automatic. Write a script, with the exact way you want to phrase questions. Ask someone else your questions in advance. Read books such as Interviewing Users by Steve Portigal.

Good luck!

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, where she helps healthcare, finance, and educational organizations communicate with their audiences. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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