Quality Question; Question Quality

Questions are so important.

Cal Fussman, in an interview with Jim Qwik, told his story about the time in 2nd grade when he wrote a letter to the President. Young Cal asked LBJ, because he really wanted to know, just how it felt to be President because Kennedy had been shot. Was he excited for the chance? Scared? Sad because his friend died? What was he thinking? Why?

So started a long and successful interviewing career.

When the response came in the mail several months later, he got some well-deserved attention from his school and community. “The kid who the White House wrote back to” – now that’s something special.

While the story alone is inspiring, the purpose he’s teaching us here is about the quality of the question itself.  Not some mechanical specifics, but the actual essence of a question. This is the golden nugget of wisdom he wants us to remember: don’t aim for the brain with your first question, aim for the heart. 

Maybe the best way to measure the quality of a question is by the quality of the response it triggers.

Cal says you have to give people an emotional thread and encourage them to pull on it. It’s so much more human and intriguing than the standard fare, and it ups the quality dramatically.

If we step back, Cal likely got his response because he was asking about the human condition, and not running with a logic-based “what will you do next” type of question. It’s subtle, simple brilliance. It hit LBJ (or whomever responds to those inquiries), not in the head, but in the heart.

Qwik quoted another friend who summed the advice up as, “sell your cleverness for bewilderment.” I love that quote too. If Cal is telling you what to aim for, Qwik is reminding us what we need to make sure is impressed upon the person receiving our question. Garbage in, garbage out applies to question quality as well.

We live today in a world that’s more connected than ever before. Social media and smartphones have literally made connectivity a commodity. A second grader is more likely to get a tweet back from the President than a written response. If we think about it, there’s nearly no one you can imagine that you couldn’t reach out to in the next 30 seconds. Even with an artfully asked question or comment – we still know the difference between a personal response and a “like.” Where’s the quality?

With the bar to jump over this low, how do we stand out? What do we do when that cost of getting a message out there is free? How do we get a 1963 White House quality response?

Genuine curiosity, and aiming for the heart instead of the brain is the closest thing to a surefire method for standing out as I’ve come across.  If we can demonstrate bewildered curiosity in something someone is doing, that sincerity becomes our symbol of quality. If we place it correctly, we increase our odds of getting a response.

Think of how watered down the average question is in our hyper-connected world. Quality isn’t about looking for the right answers, it’s about asking the right questions.

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