I’ve recently been doing a bit of research on space exploration. The hunt has inevitably led me to stories about SpaceX founder (and billionaire genius) Elon Musk, a man whose mission to colonize Mars has led to the development of self-landing rockets, among other innovations over the last few years.
In the course of geeking out about such rocketry, I stumbled across two Musk interviews that inadvertently illustrate one of the biggest conversational mistakes — and missed opportunities — I see people make every day. Coincidentally, they’re both by men named Rose: Kevin Rose, founder of Digg and partner at Google Ventures, and Charlie Rose, the veteran PBS/CBS interview host. Each had the chance to interview one of today’s most fascinating innovators, but one of them succeeded in a slightly more enlightening (and less awkward) interview.
The difference was in the questions they asked, and specifically how they asked them. See if you can spot what’s going on:
Kevin: What led you into entrepreneurship? Was it something that you always knew that you wanted to be, an entrepreneur on your own? Or did you stumble into it?
Charlie: What are you doing in terms of planetary exploration?
Kevin: Where do you come up with your best ideas? Are you on vacation, or do you wake up in the middle of the night and draw things down?
Charlie: How did you go about the design?
Kevin: When did you decide to get into computers and technology? Did you start coding? Or was it a lot of…?
Charlie: What do you think?
Can you guess which interview went better?
You can see the interviews for yourself here and here if you’re interested (this snippet about global warming here is fantastic). But you probably won’t be surprised when I tell you that Charlie Rose’s interview was more interesting, and came across as significantly more professional. The man is great at asking questions and getting out of the way; he uses short, open-ended questions when he wants elaboration, and short, yes-or-no questions when he wants to be pointed.
Kevin Rose, on the other hand, ends every question in the interview with a series of possible answers. Instead of performing an interview, he administers a multiple-choice exam. In the process, he not only uses time that his interview subject could spend talking, but also misses out on serendipitous conversational outcomes. With the multiple-choice question format, you simply water the conversation down.
We all do this. ”What are you doing for the holidays? Are you staying in town, or are you going somewhere, or do you have to work?…”
This usually occurs because people have a hard time ending sentences. We are uncomfortable with terseness. So we ramble until we trail off, or until the other person jumps in. Instead of, What do you think?, we say, Do you think x, y, z, q, r or…
Once you start paying attention to this it will drive you nuts. We don’t tend to notice the multiple-choice problem in ourselves until we’re in a situation like a sit-down interview, recorded for all the Internet to see, when suddenly the repeat effect of the struggle-to-suggest-options-because-I-don’t-know-how-to-stop becomes really… well, irritating!
(Of course, the Musk interviews are a good example but not a fair comparison. Charlie’s been at this for decades. Kevin is a very smart guy, and his Foundation series is quite good. The interviewee lineup is spectacular – albeit male-heavy – and he unearths some pretty interesting backstories. His Q&A skill will increase as with all interviewers, and he’s going to discover in the course of interviewing people what great interrogators know: the interviewee will always suggest more interesting answers than you can.)
As a journalist-turned-entrepreneur, I’ve written a few times about the skills that businesspeople can pick up from reporters. The art of asking great questions is one of the most frequently useful. (I elaborate on my rules for better Q&A, whether in a formal interview or a simple conversation, in an old Fast Company post here.)
The #1 tip for asking better questions? Cut them off at the question mark.
Those better, terser questions will make you a better conversationalist, a more effective information-gatherer. A more efficient speaker. And, perhaps paradoxically, a more pleasant communicator.
It takes will power to be concise. But effective questions will double your conversational effectiveness, and just might make you a little more interesting yourself.
So… what do you think?