Interviewer: “Where did you grow up?”

Famous person: “Florida.”

Interviewer: “Where did you attend college?”

Famous person: “Florida State.”

Interviewer: “What was your major?”

Famous person: “Soil and water science.”


That’s what your reader will do when you write an interview like most run-of-the-mill writers. After all, common sense tells us the interview process should be logical and matter-of-fact. The interview process is the best way to gain information.

What many people don’t know is the question determines the amount and kind of information that can be obtained. In other words, there is a right and wrong way to ask a question if you are expecting to get what you came for. By understanding the process, you will create an atmosphere for a great interview.

Open vs. Closed Questions

A “closed” question is one that the can only be answered with a yes, no, or limited response.

An “open” question is one that is based on the 5 W’s-who, what, when, where, why, or how.

For more extensive replies, ask the person to explain, recall, or describe. These types of questions result in detail which will keep your audience interested.

Taking time to prepare well for an interview using open ended questions assure a smooth interview. Open ended question create a situation where the interviewee has the responsibility of providing the information.

Be in control of the interview, don’t let the interview control you.

There are different types of questions you can use that are very different in character and usage.

Closed questions

Definition There are two definitions that are used to describe closed questions. A common definition is: A closed question can be answered with either a single word or a short phrase. Thus ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Where do you live?’ are closed questions.

A more limiting definition is: A closed question can be answered with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Thus ‘Are you happy?’ and ‘Is that a knife I see before me?’ are closed questions, whilst ‘How are you?’ and even ‘How old are you?’ are not, by this definition, closed.

This limited definition is also sometimes called a ‘yes or no’ question, for obvious reasons.

Using closed questions

Closed questions have the following characteristics:

  • They give you facts.
  • They are easy to answer.
  • They are quick to answer.
  • They keep control of the conversation with the questioner.

This makes closed questions useful in the following situations:

  •  As opening questions in a conversation, as it makes it easy for the other person to answer, and doesn’t force them to reveal too much about themselves:  It’s great weather, isn’t it? Where do you live? What time is it?
  • For testing their understanding (asking yes/no questions). This is also a great way to break into a long ramble: So, you want to move into our apartment, with your own bedroom and bathroom?   
  • For setting up a desired positive or negative frame of mind in them (asking successive questions with obvious answers either yes or no )  Are you happy with your current supplier? Do they give you all that you need? Would you like to find a better supplier?
  • For achieving closure of a persuasion (seeking yes to the big question). If I can deliver this tomorrow, will you sign for it now?  

Note how you can turn any opinion into a closed question that forces a yes or no by adding tag questions, such as “isn’t it?”, “don’t you?” or “can’t they?” to any statement.

The first word of a question sets up the dynamic of the closed question, signaling the easy answer ahead.

Note how these are words like: do, would, are, will, if.

Open questions

Definition  An open question is likely to receive a long answer. Although any question can receive a long answer, open questions deliberately seek longer answers, and are the opposite of closed questions.

Using open questions

Open questions have the following characteristics:

  • They ask the respondent to think and reflect.
  • They will give you opinions and feelings.
  • They hand control of the conversation to the respondent.

This makes open questions useful in the following situations:

  • As a follow-on from closed questions, to develop a conversation and open up someone who is rather quiet. What did you do on you holidays?  How do you keep focused on your work?
  • To find out more about a person, their wants, needs, problems, and so on. What’s keeping you awake these days? Why is that so important to you?
  • To get people to realize the extend of their problems (to which, of course, you have the solution). I wonder what would happen if your customers complained even more? Rob Jones used to go out late. What happened to him? 
  • To get them to feel good about you by asking after their health or otherwise demonstrating human concern about them. How have you been after your operation? You’re looking down. What’s up?     

Open questions begin with such as: what, why, how, describe.

Using open questions can be scary, as they seem to hand the baton of control over to the other person. However, well-placed questions do leave you in control as you steer their interest and engage them where you want them.

When opening conversations, a good balance is around three closed questions to one open question.

The closed questions start the conversation and summarize progress, whilst the open question gets the other person thinking and continuing to give you useful information about them.

An open-ended question is designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and/or feelings. It is the opposite of a closed-ended question, which encourages a short or single-word answer.

Open-ended questions also tend to be more objective and less leading than closed-ended questions.

Open-ended questions typically begin with words such as “Why” and “How”, or phrases such as “Tell me about…”.

Often they are not technically a question, but a statement which implicitly asks for a response.

 Leading Questions

A leading question is a question which subtly prompts the respondent to answer in a particular way. Leading questions are generally undesirable as they result in false or slanted information.

For example: Do you get on well with your boss?

This question prompts the person to question their employment relationship. In a very subtle way it raises the prospect that maybe they don’t get on with their boss.

Tell me about your relationship with your boss. This question does not seek any judgment and there is less implication that there might be something wrong with the relationship.


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