John Sawatsky taught me that the way you ask questions in interviews determines how good an answer you get. Not only that, but some ways of asking actually suppress the answer.
In general, you want your subjects to give you accurate, full, and honest answers. You want to find out what they know and think. And you don’t want stuff their staffs wrote for them to memorize and spout back at you.
Good questions tend to be open-ended, active, neutral, simple, and short.
An open-ended question does not limit subjects to one path, but allows them to choose where to go. Such questions often lead you to things you didn’t know about, and give you clues to the subjects’ personality and experience. Here’s an open-ended question: “What formed you as a glass artist?”
Active questions make the subjects think. They require exploration and invite follow-ups, where the treasure usually lies. Here’s an active question: “How do financial considerations affect what you choose to paint?”
Neutral questions avoid value judgments that lead to digressions from what you want to find out. Suppose you ask, “Had you seen Van Gogh’s Starry Night (my favorite painting) before you painted your own Brightly Night?” The artist may reply, “Actually, I dislike Dutch painting.” And you have to ask the question again in different form. The neutral version might be “What other art works, if any, influenced your Brightly Night?”
Simple questions focus a little more by limiting the avenues the subjects can pursue. “Why did you switch from painting on oak to painting on glass?”
And short questions tend to get the best answers of all, because they startle the subjects a little but don’t distract them. Here’s the most effective short question, in my experience: “Why?” Then you sit back, shut up, and wait. I also use “How?” and “Oh?” a lot. My favorite question isn’t a question, but “Hmm, tell me more.”
[What are your favorite interview questions?]