Executive Careers Blog

Do You Ask Smart Questions?


I'm in a New Orleans hotel, puzzled by a strange question.

"How will you approach your appetite?" asks the ad above the elevator.

Huh? You might ask someone how she'd approach a new job, or a tough client, or a grizzly bear.

But you're less likely to say, "Harriett, it's time for lunch. You're a woman with impressive cravings. How will you approach your hunger?"

The problem with smart questions is that they don't come right out of the box; they require a bit of work.

Three things to consider:

1) Right words: Your question should be short and simple.

Bad example: "Complimentary Ocean View Upgrade?" Only four words in this ad, but they don't fit together as a question.

That's because the familiar phrase, "complimentary upgrade," has been blasted apart and is now separated by an ocean.

Better: "HEY, WHERE'S THE OCEAN??? Stay with us, and you'll never ask."

2) Real vs. rhetorical: "Why are some women destined to wear Chico's?" asks the fashion ad. That's rhetorical. You don't expect an answer, do you? (Also rhetorical.)

If you ask an audience a rhetorical question, don't pause for more than a second. (Pause longer if the question is real.)

And don't ask too many rhetorical questions or you'll train your audience not to answer anything.

Here's a more interesting—and real—question: "Women CEOs: Why So Few?" asks Harvard Business Review (3/10).

Let's hope the answer isn't: "Because some women are destined instead to wear Chico's."

3) Risk: Suppose you're leading a meeting to discuss corporate values. Think about your sequence of questions—don't ask the riskiest one first. A good sequence might be:

a) On a 1-10 scale, to what extent do our employees know the values? b) To what extent do they believe them?

And then, the killer: c) How, specifically, have we used our values?

You could also ask, "Who here knows the values?" But asking the generic, "Who knows about X?" is always risky.

If someone knows about X, he may not raise his hand out of fear you'll call on him.

And if someone doesn't know, he may raise his hand anyway because everyone else has hands up.

No one wants to look stupid. What's the risk your question will do that?

Tip: Smart questions make people smarter. They get people to think. But before you can ask one, you need to think.


Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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