Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Just four questions?

Four questions are an essential element of the Passover Seder. This was one of the first things learned by the non-Jewish Wikipedia-skimming couple who celebrated with us this year.

The purpose of the four questions is to engage children in the story of Passover, with the youngest asking why the holiday’s customs and foods are different than those of all other nights. That’s a lot of information to convey through just four questions.

Journalists use at least six in their reporting: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?

I’m not a journalist, but I do interview clients to get to the heart of a story. And I do ask a lot of questions.

In some cases, clients ask for a list of questions beforehand. And while that’s easy enough for me to generate, it isn’t always helpful. After the first few questions, interviews usually take on a life of their own. They become what I call fishing expeditions. I let the conversation go where it will so I can discover things I may not have known enough to ask about. 

Questions don’t even have to be fully formed thoughts. If there’s good back-and-forth in an interview, just mentioning a key word or phrase can prompt the subject-matter expert to respond.

Generic questions also work better than you might expect:
  • Why is this topic important for readers?
  • What are the two or three key things you want them to know?
  • What are competitors saying about this topic?
  • What haven’t we covered?
  • Is there anything else you want to add?
I might even ask “Anything else?” a few times, until the final answer is: “No. I think we’ve covered it all.

One of the best questions I’ve found is a single word: Why? By asking “why” over and over, you can drill down into any topic until the relevant detail surfaces. It’s an approach most of us used as small children, to annoy our parents: Why? Why? Why? 
 
As an adult asking the same question, I can see why it’s so effective. The answer either starts with “Because…” or winds up providing background or rationale that puts the content into perspective.

Questions are useful tools for acquiring information...which leaves me with a final question about the Passover Seder: Why only four questions?


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