Ask Better Questions

I like browsing Quora and answering questions.  If you do, you’ll notice that many people ask bad questions.

It’s not that the content is bad, or the thing they’re trying to get at, it’s that many questions feel like no pre-work was done to drive them to the question.  Or the asker hasn’t considered the best way to get the information they want.  Or they have no idea what it is they want or why they’re asking the question.

Questions like this:

Should I become an engineer?
What can a startup do to succeed?
What’s the best career to have?

These questions are so vague and context-less that it’s hard to imagine really useful answers.  The questions are general questions about the world at large, rather than specific questions about the individual’s specific goals and challenges.  They don’t demand accountability, and they smack of searching for guarantees, off-the-hooks, or just dilly-dallying.

I was thinking about the importance of specific vs. vague questions the other day when someone found out I knew someone else and asked for an email intro.  I said sure at first, then when I went to draft the email, it felt incredibly burdensome and like I’d be burning a lot of social capital for unclear reasons.  I went back to the person and said, “I can intro you, but what specifically are you asking of the person?”  They told me they didn’t know, and I said come back when you do and I’ll do it.

I’ve been on the other end.  An email with a specific, relevant ask is not hard to answer.  “Can you tell me what software you use to record your podcast?” or “Where do I submit a guest post to the Praxis blog?” etc.  A generic ask is the worst.  It eats up so much mental space.  “Hey, we have a lot in common, here’s a bunch of info, we should connect”, or, “Meet person A, they’re really cool and think similarly to you.”

What can I do with that?

I’ve had the temptation to be really general myself.  When someone I respect opens a line of communication, I feel like I have to use it somehow!  But if I don’t have a real, clear, specific ask, it’s worse to keep the line open then to let it close.

Ask questions you really want an answer to, and make them clear, specific, concise, and contextual.

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