Don’t Question Success – Ask the Right Questions for Success

A collection of microphones at a lectern, suggesting an interview is about to start.

Whether you’re developing content for your company’s newsletter (either external or internal) or trying to figure out what your Web site content should say, the best way to approach getting this information is to think like a reporter.

It can sound daunting, but it really isn’t. The interview process to develop content is remarkably simple in its foundation, but it can be spectacularly difficult in its execution. After all, the key to conducting a good interview comes down to two foundational steps:

  1. Ask the question
  2. Listen to the answer

As simple as those two steps may seem, there are dozens of ways to screw it up. Allow me to offer some advice – experience I’ve earned from two decades juggling writing for media outlets and writing for businesses.

Ask the Question

New reporters, wet-behind-the-ears communications/marketing staff who have been tasked with “coming up with a story,” and a digital agency trying to determine what a client needs, can often overthink the process of asking questions.

Too much preparation can actually negatively impact your ability to successfully complete task number two.

While it is important to be prepared, do your homework, and avoid wasting time, it’s important to not become robotic in your questioning method. Coming in with 20 fully-defined questions and shooting them off rapid-fire without any consideration for the response may get you answers – but they may not necessarily be the right ones.

Whether I’m going into a one-on-one interview or participating a business discovery process, I come armed with the fundamentals: those key questions I must have answered to provide me with a successful foundation for a solution or article.

But that’s it.

There’s a difference between asking a question and asking the right question. You need to arm yourself with knowledge and research, but afford yourself the most valuable tool of all – flexibility. Because that flexibility will come into play when you hit step number two.

Listen to the Answer

Shockingly, many people do this very poorly. Sometimes, people come into an interview with a predetermined focus or story in mind; sometimes, people may think they have a ‘perfect’ solution based upon their analysis; and – worst of all – sometimes people are so focused on reading what their next question on that infernal list is, that they fail to truly and actively listen to the answer.

And the failure of that is that sometimes the best next questions are floating right in front of you, from your interviewees’ answers.

That’s where the flexibility to adjust, follow-up, and go off track a bit can be extremely valuable. Instead of simply regurgitating what everyone already knows, actually listening to the answer allows you delve further into what really matters.

Earlier I used the term, “what a client needs.” I did so purposely, because in some cases that’s far different from what a client (or the agency) thinks they wants.

My personal discovery preference is to interview key stakeholders on a one-on-one basis. That way, you can delve into the individual challenges that people may be facing in a project. It’s a very Kaizen-y approach, wherein you bring those who actually do the job into the process-improvement efforts so that you can identify pain points, areas of improvement, and suggestions for innovation right from the staff doing the job.

It’s easy to build a business solution based on assumptions, but the most successful projects are ones that address the client’s true challenges and opportunities.

From a newsletter perspective, actively listening to your interview subject lets you delve into those interesting sidebars – which usually ends up creating a far more interesting, less-jargon-filled, and more satisfying and engaging read.

Think of a news article: the boring ones (especially in the sports world) are the cliché-ridden, dime-a-dozen articles that are the result of asking the same questions and hitting the same notes. The stories that resonate go deeper.

So, when you’re developing a Website or creating a newsletter for your employees or customers, which would you rather produce? Something cookie-cutter or something that actually explores – and meets – the needs of its users?

It can be a challenge – sometimes asking the right questions means hearing the answers that we might not have wanted. But in the end, the honest truth is always the best foundation upon which to build – whether it’s a story, a site, or even a country. It’s painfully simple: ask a good question and actually listen to the answer.

So how do you ask the right questions? And do you listen? We all have opinions, biases, or preconceived notions. How do you turn yours off? Comments are open!

Questions Answered

How do you ask the right questions?

How do I develop newsletter content?

How do I run a discovery process?

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