questions that get answers
For this assignment, you’re preparing for what’s called a semi-structured interview. That means you come in with a plan, but the plan might go out the window. (That’s the “semi-” part.) You’re OK with that, because you can always come back to the plan. (That’s the “structure” part.)
The structure is your list of questions, which you’ve carefully constructed and ordered according to how you think the interview could and should proceed, from topic to topic.
Types of questions
Primary, then probing
We open a topic with an interviewee by asking what we call a primary question. Primary questions establish the topic or subtopic (“Let’s talk about your work in the ad department…”). We follow that up with probing questions. Open the topic, then pursue the topic.
Open vs. closed questions
Open questions offer few limits for the response. They invite the interviewee to give you a lot of information, and they allow the interviewee to be in control of that information. Closed questions have a narrow focus, restricting the interviewee to give you only the precise information you are seeking. So you, the interviewer, are more in control. You ask a restricted question, you get a restricted answer.
There are degrees of each — moderately open questions, moderately closed questions. It’s like a camera f-stop: you control the amount of information (light) that comes through from the subject. Moderately closed questions, for instance, really focus the lens to specific, limited pieces of information (“Which classes have been your favorite this year?”). Often, a moderately closed question is asking for a list answer. Highly closed questions only seek a single piece of information (“Who’s your favorite professor this term?”). There’s only one answer here.
I say only one answer — often a highly closed question limits the interviewee to two polar choices. This kind of question is called bipolar: “Are you union or management?” If you use the word “or,” it’s a bipolar question.
This includes yes or no questions. If you ask a yes or no question, the answer you can expect from the interviewee will be, surprise, yes or no! If that seems obvious, you’d be amazed at how many journalists and others out there don’t clue into that. If you seek more information than yes or no, you either must be prepared with broader, more open follow-up questions (why? how?) or you should phrase the question differently to begin with.
Advantages of open questions
Neutral vs. leading questions
A neutral question is one that allows the interviewee to decide on the answer without any overt pressure from the interviewer. A leading question suggests the answer — it telegraphs, by the way you word it, what answer you expect. So in order to answer a leading question, the interviewee feels pressure to agree with the interviewer. The problem with this: it’s an easy out for the interviewee, but it might not be the truth. A “loaded question” is simply an extremely leading question.
Kent Brockman: Apu, will you ever stop selling
Apu: No. I mean, yes. I mean — uh oh.
It’s all about how you phrase the question. Which is why you want to have at least some of them prepared in advance. But you’ll also be thinking up follow-up questions on the fly, and you’ll want to give yourself space and time in the interview to phrase them … not correctly (there’s rarely a correct way), but in such a manner as to achieve the best results.