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That's a Good Question!

By Elizabeth Frick, PhD, ELS

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Introduction    Link to contents

All of us have suffered the consequences of expensive, unasked questions both in our professional lives and our personal lives. As technical communicators, we must ask good questions to elicit information, but many of us lack adequate training in this skill. Add to that the natural reticence of some technical communicators, and it's no wonder that we walk away from SME interviews or department meetings wishing we'd remembered to ask X, Y, or Z. This paper offers information as to why questions are so important, who needs to improve discovery skills, what types of questions are useful, how to strategize your questions, how to ask good questions, how to handle people answering the questions you ask them, and how to answer questions that are asked of you.

Why Are Questions Important?    Link to contents

We've all experienced the pain of unasked questions. One of my clients shared an example of not asking where they should design the cleanout door on a machine they were prototyping for a customer. They just assumed it would follow past designs. That was a $20,000 unasked question (and mistake)!

I recently was penalized by an unasked question: When I replaced my windows with casements, I asked if I could clean them from the inside of the house. I was assured I could. When the windows were installed, I found that someone with a 28-inch arm could clean the window from inside (but I have only a 24-inch arm). I failed to ask the right question: "Can a person with a 24-inch arm clean this particular width window?"

Why Should You Care?

  • You always have a "question budget"-a point at which others will stop answering your questions.
  • If you ask the right questions, you'll get the information you need.
  • If you get the information you need, you'll save money (and time).

Who Nees to Improve Discovery Skills?    Link to contents

Everyone needs to ask good questions. For the question-phobic (many technical communicators), let's call it "discovery skills." Here is a partial list of those who need discovery skills:

Attorneys and judges, children and parents, engineers and their clients, focus group leaders, HR managers (interviewers), physicians and patients, police officers and investigators, politicians and voters, programmers, salespeople and consumers, scientists (all research begins with a question or questions), teachers and learners, the media, therapists. . .and YOU!

What Types of Questions Are Useful?    Link to contents

There are many different types of questions.

  1. Permission questions demonstrate your positive intent in asking questions. They show respect and help you build trust.
    • Let me ask you…
    • Could you show me how you want….?
    • May I get some more information about…?

  2. Open-ended questions stimulate thought and encourage continued conversation. They cannot be answered with one word or with a simple "yes-no" response.
    • What items are critical to ZZZ?
    • What are the risks?
    • How does this subassembly fit into the overall drug delivery?
    • What's that all about?

  3. Closed questions elicit "yes" or "no" answers (often, verifiable data). Once answered, this type of question may preclude further conversation without asking another question.
    • What is the piece price of XXX?
    • Is this process currently being used?
    • What is the tolerance of YYY?

  4. Probing questions help you explore more in a certain direction. You can elicit further detail by asking probing questions.
    • Why is that?
    • How would that look?
    • What if…?
    • Tell me more about…
    • What about…?

  5. Encouraging questions help speakers keep going without interrupting them: Silence is a great encourager!
    • Un huh…
    • I see…
    • Oh, really…?

  6. Restatement/paraphrase questions show that you've been listening. They can keep the communication open, perhaps because they show that you are listening and want to clarify your perceptions. They are also a graceful way to check up on inconsistent information.
    • Let me play this back to you…
    • Here's what I have heard so far. Let me state it in my own words to make sure that I understand it correctly.

  7. Catchall questions invite further information. As you listen to the answer, you might receive verification of information already placed on the table. Then again, catchall questions might elicit another viewpoint.
    • Would you like to tell me anything I haven't asked you about?
    • What haven't we discussed that might be relevant?
    • What else is important for me to know?

  8. Checking questions help you further clarify conflicting information, especially if answers have diverged from expectations.
    • Please explain that a little further…
    • Help me understand your intention…
    • Tell me more about…

There's another question paradigm that I've just started thinking about, thanks to Jane MacKenzie: left-brained (logistical) questions and right-brained (intuitive) questions. At this point, it seems that left-brained questions are those that elicit facts ("How many widgets do we need to keep on hand?"), while right-brained questions look at the big picture: "What's most important about this?" or "What if. . .?" I'm looking forward to thinking more along these lines.

How to Strategize Your Questions    Link to contents

Once you have brainstormed your list of questions, it's important to plan your questioning strategy. Generally, it seems best to proceed from open-ended questions ("Please give us your vision of the X machine you want us to build for you") to more specific questions ("Where should we place the cleanout door?" or "Do you want the color red for this flap?"). If you find that your specific questions are eliciting information that conflicts with earlier information, you might need to go back to more open-ended questions ("Tell me again your vision of the human interface of this machine?").

Of course, probes and encouraging questions are always appropriate at any time. Catchall questions may be most helpful at the end of a question session.

How to Ask Good Questions    Link to contents

Before you start popping questions, you must first establish a relationship with the interviewee or group being questioned. You must convince them of the following:

  • I care about your issues.
  • I am honest.
  • I do not have an axe to grind.
  • I want to understand your truth.
  • I meet my commitments.

You might accomplish this by a diplomatic statement of purpose ("We're all interested in understanding your truth") or by starting with a few throw-away questions ("How was your trip?" "How is the hotel?" "Is this your first time visiting Minnesota?"). These questions, which are not related to your area of discovery, will help to warm them up and show them how easy it is to answer your questions. It may be best to avoid questions about politics, religion, or sports.

Then, you need to ask your questions in a non-threatening manner:

  • Aim for dialogue, not interrogation.
  • Don't use questions to state your opinion.
  • If you have two questions in one, separate them out.
  • Be aware of cultural insensitivity; not every culture likes being questioned. If you are questioning a person from one of these cultures, don't overdo the eye contact; instead, focus on their lips.
  • If you don't get an immediate answer to your question, count silently to ten. This will allow the interviewee to formulate an answer. They will feel less rushed than if you jump in right away with a paraphrased question or a different question.

How to Handle People Answering the Questions You Ask    Link to contents

  • Listen. That's another workshop, of course. We can all learn to listen better.
  • Use body language to show you are listening; lean toward your audience and focus on them when you're not writing.
  • Take notes.
  • If you can get their permission, tape record the question-and-answer session. Use an unobtrusive but powerful mike (available from Radio Shack or other technical shops) with a long cord that will allow you to place the recorder where it's not so obvious. Be sure to use fresh batteries in the recorder.

How to Answer Questions That Are Asked of You    Link to contents

  • When asked a question, pause for a few seconds to think about your answer.
  • If you're not sure how to answer a question, ask a clarifying question to give yourself time to collect your thoughts.
  • If you are in front of a group of people, restate the question. It's hard to tell who in the group might be hard of hearing, but expect that not all in the audience will have heard the question. Be sure to restate the question EXACTLY as it was asked (see next bullet).
  • If you need to rephrase the question in order to answer it, ask the questioner if your paraphrase/restatement is OK with him or her (this shows your respect for the questioner).
  • If you don't have an answer or don't want to give your answer right away, ask the group for their answer.

Tips for Becoming a Better Questioner    Link to contents

  1. Be serious about improving your questioning skills. Most of us were never formally trained to ask questions, but this is a crucial skill for any profession.
  2. Start today: Make a list of the questions you don't ask and write down what your ignorance costs you. The next time some "failure" occurs in your work group or in your own life, ask yourself "What question didn't I ask that needed to be asked?" KEEP YOUR LISTS OF QUESTIONS and review them frequently.
  3. Hang out with a 2-year-old. Be very conscious about their questions. What can you learn from them?
  4. Practice being 2 years old again. When you're on a walk or driving your car, start consciously forming and voicing questions ("Wonder why the snow is completely melted in that spot?" "Why is all the traffic in the left lane?").
  5. Play Jeopardy. A great website of Jeopardy games for teachers is at http://www.hardin.k12.ky.us/res_techn/countyjeopardygames.htmExternal link.
  6. Play 20 Questions. For fun online practice, go to http://www.20q.net/External link to play 20 Questions against artificial intelligence.

References    Link to contents


  • Adams, M.G. (2009). Change your questions, change your life. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Brown, G. & Wragg, E. (1993). Questioning. London: Routledge.
  • Dillon, J. (1988). Questioning and discussion: A multi-disciplinary approach. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  • Faden, T.J. (2009). The art of asking: Ask better questions, get better answers. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.
  • Hunkins, F. (1989). Teaching thinking through effective questioning. Boston: Christopher-Gordon.
  • Killenberg, G.M. & Anderson, R. (1989). Before the story: Interviewing and communication skills for journalists. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Leeds, D. (1987). Smart questions. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company.
  • Leeds, D. (2000). The 7 powers of questions: Secrets to successful communication in life and at work. New York: Perigee.
  • Marquardt, M.J. (2005). Leading with questions: How leaders find the right solutions by knowing what to ask. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • Metzler, K. (1989). Creative interviewing (2nd edition). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Payne, S. L. (1951). The art of asking questions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Sudman, S. & Bradburn, N. M. (1982). Asking questions: A practical guide to questionnaire design. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  • Wilson Learning. (1994). The counselor salesperson. Eden Prairie, MN.


  • Bailey, E. (2006). Interviewing for performance. Intercom, June, 6-10.
  • Hambleton, V. (2001). Winning interviews. The Writer, March, 114(i3), 43.
  • Hart, G.J.S. (2000). Effective interviewing: Get the story. Intercom, January, 24-26.
  • Huff, C. (1997). Using e-mail on the news trail. American Journalism Review, December, 19(10), 13.
  • Jarrett, C. (2009). Writing questions that are easy to answer. Intercom, June 21-24.
  • Lambe, J. (2000).Techniques for successful SME interviews. Intercom, March, 30-32.
  • Pickering, M. (1986). Communication in Explorations, A Journal of Research of the University of Maine, 3(1), 16-19.
  • Schafer, R.S. (2007). Ten tips for writing better Web-based survey questions. Intercom, April, 25-27.
  • Silverstein, S. (2006). How to present an idea and be heard. The Toastmaster, September, 20-21.
  • Singer, W. (2007). How to interview subject matter experts. Intercom, November, 16-18.


TechWHIR-L Client Questionnaire by Judy Fraser (two links):

Elizabeth (Bette) Frick is the founder and President of The Text Doctor. She has over 30 years' experience training writers, starting as a high-school English teacher in Anchorage, Alaska and moving into college teaching (University of Minnesota and Metro State University, St. Paul, Minnesota). For the last 22 years, she has taught technical and business writing at international, national, and Denver-Metro companies and organizations including Medtronic, Boston Scientific, Best Buy, Thomson Reuters, and Denver Water.

Bette holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota. She served as President of STC, Twin Cities Chapter (2003-2004). She served as Seminar Manager for the Denver chapter and was named a Fellow of the STC at the May Summit, 2011.

Bette is also a board-certified editor in the Life Sciences (BELS certification) and earned the Essential Skills Certificate from the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) in 2010. She is the current President of the AMWA-RMC (Rocky Mountain Chapter). In April 2011, she earned the Distinguished Toastmaster award (DTM), the highest award conferred by Toastmasters International.

Elizabeth Frick, PhD, ELS
The Text Doctor®
P.O. Box 17571
Boulder CO 80308-0571
www.textdoctor.comExternal link


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