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Asking good questions

Someone in my MBA class told me that I ask good questions at lectures. Emboldened by this lovely compliment I started thinking about what makes a good question, and how to ask better ones. (This is meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek and I’m not at all implying that I avoid all the pitfalls all of the time.)

What is a ‘good’ question?

Questions in classroom or meeting contexts have three stakeholders: the asker, the responder, and the other attendees. I don’t know what responders (eg. professors) would consider a good question, but from the perspective of the asker, a good question is simply one that helps you understand something more clearly. For example:

You said that the value of a firm is independent of its capital structure, but on that graph it looks like the more debt a company has, the higher its value. What am I missing?

Note that most questions look like requests for information. But askers might have an ulterior motive, as well – some of the secondary characteristics that I think MBA students, at least, would think improve a question are that it makes you sound smart:

But what if a firm takes out an IOH or reissues its covenant-leveraged bonds, wouldn’t you agree that that’s something that their shareholders would want to avoid?

NB. this is gibberish. A good question could also make you sound well-read:

That’s interesting, because Michael Porter says you should always try to maximise your competitive advantage – I think that’s in the second essay collection…

(That one is my personal favourite.) It could make you sound connected:

It’s funny you should say that, because my friend who started a mutual fund and was written about in the FT this week found it really hard to…

Or moral:

Yes, running sweatshops might be cheaper, but surely that totally disregards the human rights of those workers?

Or, lastly, it could demonstrate to the responder, such as a boss or a lecturer, that you have done your homework:

The notes for this class suggested that sweatshops can sometimes provide a much-needed income source that otherwise wouldn’t be there, but I’m wondering…

What do the others around you think is a good question?

The important thing is that those same characteristics don’t necessarily make a question good from the point of view of the other attendees. If you are attending a meeting or lecture, someone else’s question can be meaningful to you in two ways: 1) if you were quietly wondering about the same thing, or 2) if you get new information either from the question or the answer that would otherwise not have come out.

You do not particularly get value out of someone else looking good, so I’m going to suggest that everyone should become more mindful of their motives when they’re asking a question. Obviously, everyone likes to boost people’s perceptions of them, and that’s okay. Contributions in all kinds of social situations are basic human ways to signal status and identity. But there is a sweet spot between self-promotion and adding something to others. Every class and workplace has people who can’t find it – they put their hand in the air and immediately everyone else groans internally. If you don’t want to to be one of those people, read on…

(c) Steve Macone

How to avoid being That Person

Keep it short. This is the 80/20 of question-asking. You can get away with anything if it’s short.

Think it through before opening your mouth. Closely related to the previous point – a lot of long questions are actually simple questions prefaced with a lot of thinking out loud. Think in your head. This has the added benefit that often you find the speaker answers your question before you’re finished crystallising it in your mind. However, don’t feel like it has to be perfectly formulated – just be clear about what you’re wanting to know.

Lead with the question. Often people will have an example situation in mind (‘Once when I was working at – even though – and then – but I – so on and so forth – so my question is –?’). It intuitively seems like a good idea to start with the story, because that’s probably why this question occurred to you in the first place, but often it’s unnecessary and is probably one of the easiest ways to become That Person. You can still relate the story if the speaker doesn’t understand your question.

Ask yourself if you can guess the answer. Sometimes I ask a question and the answer seems obvious as soon as I hear it. Now I try to stop and think what the likely answer will be – this, by the way, is a good learning tool – and if I can roughly guess what it will be, I leave it. An example might be ‘Why aren’t there more women entrepreneurs?’ The answer will be, off the top of my head, lack of time if you’re starting/running a family, lack of confidence, lack of knowledge about financing, and so on.

Limit the what-ifs. This is another MBA classic! It seems to me that my cohort mainly busy themselves in class with thinking up contradictions, exceptions to the rule, special situations and other critical comments to whatever the lecturer is talking about (that includes me). I think it’s a good thing, overall, but it can take up a lot of time, and you tend to nearly always get the same answer: ‘Well, this is just a simplified way of looking at it.’

No double questions. Do you know that sinking feeling you get when you hear the words ‘My first question is…’? Pick the question that you most urgently want answered and then ask another one later. Alternatively, follow up immediately without making it obvious that you’re asking two (‘But then…’/’So does that mean…’). I would argue that audiences mind the follow-up questions less than they do being given a three-course menu of all the questions to come.

Generalise specific questions. If you have a question that is specific to you and unlikely to interest anyone else, wait until the end and ask it face-to-face. I’ve been to recruitment presentations where attendees ask things like ‘I’m a Physics graduate with 3 years of experience in oil and gas, and I also volunteer for the Red Cross. How should I present that on my cover letter?’ This is just plain rude to everyone else there. A better, generalised way to ask essentially the same question could be ‘If you do volunteering, how much should you emphasise that on your application?’ That way other people can identify themselves in the question and also get something out of it.

Have I missed some other good do’s or don’ts? I’d love to hear them.

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