Asking questions about what we want to know seems pretty straight forward.  Truth is, how those questions are asked has a significant impact on the accuracy and quality of the responses.  Question-asking is not as simple as it seems. There’s an art to it.

Good questions are particularly important in niche markets. The people in those markets have unique and specific perspectives.  That’s what niche markets are all about.  Which means everything about your product, brand identity, messaging, plus channels of communication and distribution, have to be spot-on.

Here are some question-asking pitfalls to be aware of:

Don’t Ask Why

“Why do you like candy?’  “Why do you go to movie theaters?”  Obvious responses lead to obvious insights.  Do you really want to spend money to learn, “Because candy is sweet” or “I like movie screens and the popcorn”?   In addition, we often don’t really know why we like, feel, or perceive something.  Those answers tend to lie beneath the surface of our awareness.  And even if there’s an awareness of a deeper resonating reason, it’s often difficult to put into words.  Ever had trouble finding the words to capture what you think or feel?  Welcome to the club.

Not Everyone Likes the Spotlight

Generally speaking, we don’t like drawing attention to ourselves in front of others.  We also don’t want to answer a question in a way that risks portraying ourselves in a bad light. It’s safer to say something similar to what others say.

 “What do you typically give your children for dinner?”  A mother may not say “McDonald’s” or “Chef Boyardee and a Coke”.  She may be concerned that response could make her look like a bad mother.  Chances are the response will be geared to a dinner that sounds healthier.  It would be better to ask, “What do your children usually want for dinner”. It takes the focus off her as a mother and shifts it to her children.  And you get to the problem faster.  You’ll spend less time overcoming defensiveness and more time on the real problem.  Most likely it has to do with getting her kids to eat healthy meals, and having to throw away what they don’t eat (translation – healthy food will cost more money).  

Show Don’t Tell

Because of the Curse of Knowledge, we forget that other people may not know the same things as we do.  For instance, making oatmeal. “Tell me how you make oatmeal.”  Someone who has made oatmeal many times, will unintentionally give vague or incomplete information. We can’t unlearn what we know.  You know those assembly instructions that reduced you to tears?  Whoever wrote didn’t keep in mind that you’ve never assembled a swing set before. To get a response that fully captures certain kinds of behaviors, have people show you how they do something.  You’ll find that showing is infinitely better than telling.

Avoid Yes/No Questions

Do you like dogs?  “No”.  “Are organic foods good for you?  “Yes”.  Not very revealing, is it?  Better to ask questions that will springboard your queries into deeper waters.  “Can you tell a difference between organic foods and processed food?”

Don’t Expect Words to Capture Feelings

It’s difficult to for us to explain our feelings to others.  Sometimes it’s hard for someone to go beyond “it makes me feel good/bad”.  Feelings usually aren’t that simple.  For example, “Describe your feelings when you finally lose those last 5 pounds”.  Don’t be surprised by a simple answer like “It makes me happy”. Give people a pile of supplies to create a feeling. Using playdough, crayons, construciton paper, pictures, glue, scissors, yarn, etc. is one way to help them express the nuances of emotion. 

Silence Can Be Golden

It’s called “holding the space”.  It means giving someone the time they need to answer.  He or she may need a little to think.  Thoughtful answers translate into thoughtful insights. Of course fill the space if someone displays discomfort with silence.  But sometimes you might be the one that’s uncomfortable with a few moments of silence while the other person is busy thinking about what he or she wants to say.  Either way, avoid peppering study participants with questions one right after the other. Give them time to think.

Some Helpful Tips for Question-Asking

  • Think about questions in terms of who, what, where, and how. Also, think of action words for the beginning of your question such as “describe” “tell” “show” “give”.  This will help you avoid yes/no responses.
  • Pictures are a great tool for going beyond the obvious.  Avoid using too many photos with expected associations.  Mountains are typically associated with strength or an obstacle. A windowpane with raindrop is often interpreted as sadness. Include some photos where you have no idea what the images could possibly mean.  You’ll be surprised at how many people can assign meaning to a wine cork.

  • If you’re uncomfortable with holding the space for an answer, practice in everyday conversation.  Train yourself to wait a few moments in silence.  For those us who find conversational silence difficult, here’s a little trick. Place your index finger vertically across your lips and nod your head in a way that looks like you’re listening.  Doing that will keep you from filling in those few moments of silence.  

Practice Makes Perfect

When bow and arrow enthusiasts hit a bullseye, they say “money”.  So, when it comes to question-asking, pay attention to how you ask them.  Practice your question-asking skills in everyday conversation. Learn to do it well, and you’ll be saying “money” too.