Asking better questions

Introduction

As broadcasters and producers, we ask many questions every day. It’s how we get the information we need to make our scripts, our programs, and our reports. We usually ask these questions in the context of an interview (find out more about how to construct and carry out a successful interview here). Often, in a hurry to get the information we want, or because we have a preconceived notion of what we want or expect our interviewee to say, we ask what are called “leading questions.” These are questions that can make it difficult for an interviewee to answer openly and honestly because they implicitly ask the interviewee to answer in a particular way. To be respectful of your interviewees and your listeners, it is important to ask better questions, ones that do not lead the interviewee to give an answer just because they believe the interviewer wants or expects to hear it. Text here

 

What do we mean by “better questions?”

 

Better questions are neutral, unbiased and open-ended. They help an interviewee tell their story by giving clear information, in their own words without being influenced by the interviewer.

Better questions replace leading questions. Leading questions provide direction to the interviewee on how they are expected to answer. They “lead” the interviewee to what the interviewer wants or expects to hear.

Better questions receive better answers—more open, honest, and surprising.

 

How can asking better questions help me serve my listeners better?

 

  • Asking better questions increases the chance that interviewees will give, and listeners will hear, useful responses—responses that are sufficiently detailed and on topic.
  • It decreases the chance that interviewees can evade subjects they would prefer to avoid.
  • It helps ensure that listeners can better understand what an interviewee believes and feels.
  • It helps maintain the element of surprise in an interview, making them more interesting to listen to. Leading questions encourage specific responses.
  • It can increase, through follow-up questions, the amount of detail in the answers.
  • It is more honest and therefore more journalistically valid.

 

How can asking better questions help me produce better programs?

 

  • Learning the discipline of asking better questions allows curiosity, the cornerstone of good journalism, to be the driving force of each interview.
  • It is more honest as it removes the journalist’s own beliefs and expectations from the questions.
  • It prevents the appearance of bias in the program.
  • It helps the journalist understand what the story is, not what they thought the story was.

 

How do I get started? (Learn more about these and other points in the Details section below.)

 

  1. Plan your interview.
  2. Be aware of the different types of questions and their purpose.
  3. Write out your questions, avoiding leading questions.
  4. Prepare questions that are specific, based on your research.
  5. Prepare different kinds of questions.
  6. Be prepared to ask good follow-up questions

Details

1. Plan your interview.

It is always important to plan out your interviews. First, of course, you need to find the right person to address the issue or experience you are exploring. That person has the knowledge and experience necessary. Once you have selected the appropriate person, determine what you want to learn from them. Knowing exactly what you want to find out is useful in designing better questions.

It is also important to do your research on the topic. The more you know about the issue and the interviewee, the better your questions will be.

Neema is a smallholder farmer with her husband Godfrey and their two children. They live on a hectare and a half of land in the dry region of Dodoma in Tanzania. They grow maize, along with some cassava and sweet potatoes. The family has been able to feed themselves and earn a small amount of money. But an extension officer told them that they are losing too much of what they grow. He told Neema that as much as 20% of her maize is lost each year to bad harvesting techniques and improper storage. Insect damage is frequent and costly. He has suggested that, along with neighbouring farmers, Neema and Godfrey learn more about better harvesting techniques and storage. Neema wants to but her husband is wary of new methods, preferring to farm as their neighbours’ farm. He is concerned about standing out or being ridiculed.

In this scenario, an interview with Neema would explore her current harvesting and storage techniques and find out why her husband, like many others in her region, is reluctant to try new methods. This can be a delicate subject because in Neema’s household, her husband usually makes the decisions. Trying to convince him to change how they farm could mean changing the way decisions are made. In a situation such as this, it is important to make sure Neema knows that the questions may go beyond farming and touch on how they make their farming decisions, and to make sure Neema is willing to answer these questions. The plan would be to visit her at her farm and conduct the interview outside near the bags of maize from the recent harvest. The interview would begin with a description of where she is standing, how successful this year’s crop was, how she and Godfrey harvested the maize, how they are storing it, and whether they would consider changing their methods to reduce loss. At this point, you can ask questions about the family dynamics. You know from talking to the extension officer in your research that these two farmers can expect to lose a significant mount of maize in the harvesting, storage, and transportation of the maize, and therefore, a significant amount of money.

2. Be aware of the different types of questions and their purpose.

One of the biggest obstacles to asking better questions is the leading question.

Leading questions can get you to your point faster because you are leading the interviewee to it. But that’s the problem. It is your point you are taking them to. Not theirs.

Definition of leading question: A leading question is a question that encourages a particular response, often a response that is desired or expected by the interviewer. Leading questions are often leading because of the way the question is phrased. Sometimes, leading questions may include the desired answer in their own phrasing. For example,

Neema, I see that you have harvested your maize but it looks like you had a poor year. Was there not enough rain?

In fact, Neema had a very good year. She just has limited space to grow maize. But the question makes it difficult for her to explain that. The interviewer first makes a statement and Neema might consider it rude to contradict it. The actual question was not about the yield but rather the rainfall. A better question would be:

Neema, how was your maize yield this year?

Neema can answer that one easily. Her yield was above average. As the interview is taking place beside the bags of maize, Neema could even point to them and describe her harvest. Audio descriptions can create strong visual images for the listener.

A follow-up question on the harvest could be:

What factors affected the yield?

Neema knows better than the interviewer how much rain fell and if there were other reasons for a good harvest. She can talk at length about her own experience without feeling like she needs to focus on the weather. The open-ended nature of “What factors …?” allows Neema the freedom to talk about the most important issues facing her. Follow-up questions would be based on how she responds.

Another way of understanding leading questions is to say that they are leading because they are predisposing questions, leading probes, or loaded questions.

Predisposing questions. These are questions that make the interviewee more liable or inclined to offer a particular response, especially if that response is viewed by the person being interviewed as desirable.

Neema, do you use improved maize seed?

The question seems neutral and not leading at first. But it could predispose, or put another way, nudge Neema to say yes because she thinks that using improved varieties is considered a good thing—or is something that the interviewer’s project is striving for. It’s important to remember that, generally speaking, respondents tend to want to provide answers that please the interviewer, and responses that show themselves in a good light. A better question to ask is:

What kind of seeds do you use, Neema?

So, to avoid asking predisposing questions, be careful to ask questions that a) don’t contain words that suggest a socially desirable response, and b) are as general as possible while still getting you the information you need.

Here is another example of a predisposing question, and an alternative better question.

Do you favour adopting the new and effective harvesting techniques to reduce crop loss that some farmers in this area use?

The words “favour” and “effective” point Neema towards the socially desirable response, whether she actually favours the techniques or not. Replace that question with these neutral open-ended questions that allow her to answer more honestly.

Do you happen to know if you have experienced crop loss, either pre- or post-harvest?

What do you think are the reasons for it?

How do you feel about the different harvesting techniques that some farmers are trying?

By avoiding leading questions, you may end up asking more questions, but they are questions Neema can answer from her lived experience. She is the expert here, not the interviewer. Open-ended questions give her the opportunity to share her knowledge.

The use of the word “happen” in that first question is an interesting choice. Researchers suggest that using that word, such as in “Do you happen to know …” implies that Neema is not expected to give a positive answer. Not using the word “happen” removes that expectation, leaving Neema free to speak from her experience.

Leading probes: Probes are used to dig a little deeper into an interviewee’s answer or statement. They are very useful and appropriate in an interview, but leading probes are not. They subtly (or not so subtly) direct an interviewee to respond in a certain way, in essence “putting words into the interviewee’s mouth.” For example, here is a probe question for Neema.

“Are you saying that the new storage options presented by the extension officer don’t work?

Neema told the interviewer that storing her maize in bags, the way she has always done it, was better for her and Godfrey. The interviewer followed with the probe to clarify what she meant, in this case a leading probe. The probe suggests an idea that may not have been originally in the interviewee’s mind. It is also aggressive and puts Neema in the perhaps uncomfortable position of claiming that she is smarter than the expert extension worker.

Instead, the probe should be open-ended, for example:

What do mean by that? Or — Could you please explain?

Loaded questions: A loaded question implies that some fact is true, even though its truth has not been established. Responding to this kind of question places the respondent in a dilemma. Take for example this question put to Neema:

Do you think the extension officer was lying when he told you that you were losing 20% of your crop?

The word “lying” is a very strong word. It loads the question by implicitly suggesting that the extension officer is, in a fact, a liar. It is an unfair question to ask Neema, as she would have no idea of the man’s motive. It may lead to an untrue or biased answer. It is also unfair to the extension officer.

A better way to ask that question is this:

What do you think of the extension officer’s statement that you are losing 20% of your maize before it gets to market?

Neema can tell you whether, in her experience, that is a good estimate. It is her story, her experience that you’re looking for.

3. Write out your questions—avoiding leading questions.

Non-leading questions are open-ended questions that eliminate an interviewer’s bias or expectation. They are designed to allow interviewees the freedom to answer in any way they choose. The most effective non-leading questions lead to discussions that often reveal insights and ideas that the interviewer may never have considered. In non-leading questions, the interviewee isn't forced to agree or disagree with the interviewer, nor is the interviewee influenced by the interviewer's suggestions.

Here is an example of a line of questioning consisting of open-ended questions our interviewer should have used with Neema.

Could you describe what your farm looks like?

How was your maize yield this year?

What factors affected the yield?

What kind of seeds do you use, Neema?

How did they do?

Describe to me how you and Godfrey plant and harvest the maize.

How do you and Godfrey make your farming decisions?

Is it important to you to work as a team?

Do you know if you experienced some crop losses during the harvest?

What do you think are the reasons for it?

How do you feel about the different harvesting techniques that some farmers are trying?

Why have you chosen to store your maize in bags?

How did you learn to do it that way?

What other storage methods have you heard about?

What the benefits or problems with each system as you understand it?

What are your future plans for harvesting and storage?

These are all open-ended questions and they are a good start to your line of questioning. But there are other things to consider when creating better questions.

4. Prepare questions that are specific, based on your research.

Don’t overgeneralize. Be specific. For example, don’t ask a question such as,

“What is the best way to deal with pest problems in maize?”

There are many kinds of pests that damage maize plants and stored maize. So, in fact, the most truthful answer to that question would be, “It depends.” So make sure your question is specific, for example:

“What is the best way to deal with Fall armyworm in maize six weeks after planting?”

“What do you do to prevent beetles in your harvested maize?”

Never use the words “recommended” or “proper” in a question. For example,

“Do you use the recommended metal silo for storing your maize?”

The problem with phrasing your question this way is that some people who don’t use the recommended storage option are likely to tell you that they do, or are planning to, because they don’t want to present themselves in a bad light. As well, Neema may believe she is doing what has been recommended but didn’t fully understand the recommended process. The interviewer has to be careful not to assume knowledge. Open-ended questions reduce the risk of making assumptions.

Because of your research, you will be aware of different ways to deal with a particular problem, for example, a pest problem or a problem with soil fertility or harvesting. Using specific examples will give you specific answers.

What do you think of the idea that farmers in your area get together to purchase a single mechanical harvester that everyone could take turns using?

Being specific about what you want to know helps interviewees such as Neema better answer the question because she knows exactly what you want. It will also provide your audience with better, more specific information.

5. Prepare different kinds of questions

Every interview needs an appropriate mix of 1) questions that obtain information, and 2) questions that highlight the interviewee’s character or personality and emotions. (Please note that, while it’s important to ask both types of questions, in practice, individual questions will often produce both information and character/personality/emotions.)

So far, most of our example questions have been fact-finding. We asked Neema about her crop, harvest techniques, and storage options. But we don’t know much about who she is as a person, as a wife, a mother, and an entrepreneur. We don’t know about her hopes and dreams and fears.

Now, to be sure, we may not need too much of that for our program. But long-time broadcasters will tell you that your listeners will listen more attentively to people to whom they can relate emotionally. They become neighbours and friends and often they become role models, sharing the common ground of, in this case, farming. These role models need to reflect the community they come from.

The questions you ask, as noted in the sample questions above, help the interviewee tell her story. Along with the questions that help the audience identify with and have empathy for the interviewee (where she lives, who is in her family, how big her farm is, what crops she grows, her hopes and dreams), you need to have her explain the obstacles or problems she must overcome. They will be familiar to many in your audience.

The following is a way to think about the structure of the rest of the interview and the kinds of questions to ask. It is often described as a narrative arc, building to a climax. The climax comes when the interviewee explains how the problem was solved. Make sure your questions are open-ended, encourage detailed descriptions, and help the interviewee tell her story in a logical order.

Here are the issues to focus on in your questions.

  • What practices they tried to try to solve the problem,
  • How and why some things didn’t work,
  • What risks were involved,
  • What options they had,
  • What choices they made and why they made them,
  • At what point they felt they had found a resolution to their problem,
  • Who helped them, and
  • How their situation changed, as well as the situation of their family and community.

As the story unfolds, it is helpful for the audience to learn how the interviewee feels about what is happening. Ask questions that reveal that. Typically, such questions start with “How do you feel about …” But there are other ways. Be careful, however, not to ask leading emotion questions such as:

You must have been angry when …

or

How happy were you when …?

Also, some interviewees may be reluctant to talk about themselves and their feelings. You will need to build trust with them before getting to questions that seek emotions.

Here are some questions for Neema that seek to show her character and emotions.

How did you feel at the beginning of the planting season?

What was it like for you and Godfrey when you realized how much maize was lost to Fall armyworm?

Can you describe the first day your son was able to help you with the harvest?

What are your dreams for the future of your farm?

Many listeners will identify with these questions—and quite probably the answers Neema will give. They will get to know her and they will want to hear what she has to say about her farming experiences.

6. Be prepared to ask good follow-up questions

As good as an open-ended question is, more often than not your interviewee will not give you everything you need in every answer.

As we have noted, the more specific the question, the more specific the answer. But there are often details left out, emotions to be probed, explanations to be given.

You have to be ready to ask follow-up questions. That means you have to listen very carefully to what the interviewee says.

This is where having a question line prepared in advance is so helpful.

If you have the next major question already in mind, you don’t have to think about it. You can focus entirely on the response to the previous question—did it make sense? Did it go far enough? Did it have all the details? Is there emotional content to look for? Here is an example:

Main question:

How was this year’s maize crop, Neema?

Potential follow-up questions depending on her answer:

Can you compare it to last year?

Why was last year better?

Can you explain that?

How did you feel after this year’s harvest?

Asking follow-up questions requires not just listening, but flexibility. You may have your list of questions on your notepad or phone, but if the conversation veers into an unplanned direction, you need to have something to ask. While planning is important, so is reacting to what you are hearing.

Sometimes follow-up questions have to challenge the interviewee’s answer. At other times, follow-ups may help you better understand a complicated answer. If you're not sure what someone means, it's better to say, "Please explain it to me." Or “Can you give me an example?” You often only get one shot at an interview.

Here are three tactics for asking follow-up questions

A. Ask your original question again, slightly differently.

Don’t be afraid to ask the same question twice. If you are interviewing someone and the person either deflects the first question or doesn’t give a real response, you can say, “Let me ask you this another way …” This is effective because you let the interviewee know that you are not letting them off the hook, but you allow them to save face by at least implying that maybe your initial question just wasn’t clear enough.

Caution: Make sure you actually change the way you phrase this second question, otherwise it can seem adversarial. The key is to ask the question another way, and declare that you are doing so.

B. Connect your interviewee’s answers to each other through active listening.

One good strategy to understand what your interviewee is saying is to link their response to something they said earlier. This is not about trying to catch someone in a lie, but instead about connecting the dots between their answers. You might say something like, “Oh, that’s like the time you …?” or, “Is that what you meant earlier when you said …?” As well as helping you to understand the person better, it tells them that you are really listening, and it actually provides meaningful insight to the person by pointing out a connection that he or she may have not seen. It allows you to synthesize information rather than just hear it.

Caution: Overusing this can make you seem like a police detective trying to catch a criminal in a lie and force a confession. Avoid saying things like, “But that’s not what you said earlier …” This is more about synthesizing than interrogating.

C. Ask a question about the implications of their answer.

When people answer a question without being particularly revealing, or by giving a very “safe” answer, what do you do? Rather than accept non-revealing answers at face value, seek to really understand the person by asking about the implications of their answers. For example:

Neema, you said that your farm is very orderly and neat. What does it mean to you to have a farm like this?

We know Neema must work very hard on how the farm looks. It might make you wonder what she sacrifices for the farm’s appearance.

A subsequent follow-up question might be:

How do you find the time to do it all?

Caution: When asking about implications, avoid asking leading questions. Instead, be truly curious about what they’re saying and the implications of their response.

There are other reasons for asking follow-up questions, and they effect the kinds of questions you will ask. For example, you could:

    • Ask the interviewee to clarify the meaning of their response.
    • Ask for examples that illustrate the point they are trying to make.
    • Ask, “What does this mean for ___?”
    • Raise an opposing opinion (for example, “Some people say that having a neat and orderly farm is a waste of time …”) and ask them what they think about it.

It is the follow-up questions that make a good interview a great interview. Good follow-up questions provide rich detail, character, and emotion.

Other points

The suggestions above for asking better questions can be applied to any interview. When interviewing a politician, for instance, open-ended questions that are very specific make it more difficult for the politician to wriggle away from a straight answer. And should they choose not to answer directly, the interviewer has a variety of options. They could say “Let me put the question another way …” or ask “Why are you not answering the question?” It is blunt, but it can be a useful question.

You may be less likely to ask questions about character and emotion to a politician or expert because you are looking for very specific answers. However, politicians and experts are people too and learning more about them as people may help listeners better understand what they are saying.

Where else can I learn about asking better questions?

BBC Academy, undated. Ask clear, simple interview questions: Jeremy Paxman. https://rl.talis.com/3/lsbu/items/00BFC3CA-38DA-9642-EE3C-07D097D5D010.html

Columbia University, undated. Interviewing principles. http://www.columbia.edu/itc/journalism/isaacs/edit/MencherIntv1.html

Davis, Richard, 2014. Tactics for Asking Good Follow-up Questions. https://hbr.org/2014/11/tactics-for-asking-good-follow-up-questions

Farm Radio International, 2016. How to conduct an effective interview. https://training.farmradio.fm/how-to-conduct-an-effective-interview/

Farm Radio International, 2017. Interviewing experts: Best practices for broadcasters and experts. https://training.farmradio.fm/how-to-interview-experts-best-practices-for-broadcasters-and-experts/

Halbrooks, Glenn, 2019. Conducting a good television interview. https://www.thebalancecareers.com/tv-interview-tips-for-news-media-professionals-2315424

MediaCollege.com, undated. Leading Questions. https://www.mediacollege.com/journalism/interviews/leading-questions.html

Pizarro, A. G., 2015. Qualitative Interviewing: 3 Mistakes to Avoid in Question Formulation. http://simplyeducate.me/2015/02/08/qualitative-interviewing-3-mistakes-to-avoid-in-question-formulation/

Acknowledgements

Contributed by: Dick Miller, freelance radio producer, trainer, and ex-CBC Radio documentary producer, lecturer in the Advanced Documentary Workshop, University of King’s College School of Journalism.

This resource was supported with the aid of a grant from The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) implementing the Green Innovation Centre project.