A good question will be short, friendly, and open ended. Try not to ask a question that could result in a simple yes or no response. There are various ways of asking questions that enable people to talk around a subject, rather than closing off what they can say. Here are some examples:
- “I notice that you studied English literature and mathematics, which seems unusual. Can you explain to me why you wanted to study these topics?”
- “Can you talk to me about how Bill Gates found out about your research project and what happened next?”
Sometimes, you may wish to elicit a response that is short in order to generate a sound bite for a publication or website etc. A good way to do this is to ask the interviewee for three words to sum up something. Of course, quoting three words on their own with no context will mean nothing to a reader, so ask your interviewee to repeat part of your question back to you at the start of their response.
- “Can you give me three words to describe your experience at the University? It’d be great if you could start your answer by saying, ‘My time studying at Glasgow was…’”
- “Can you give me one word to sum up how you felt on graduation? It’d be helpful to me if you could start the sentence by saying, ‘When I first left the University, I felt …’”
- “Can you complete this sentence for me? My time at the University helped me in my career by…’”
Ask questions, even though you may know the answer
You should still ask questions you already know the answer to. You want to hear them talk about that answer in their own words. Your interviewee might say something far more interesting or engaging than what you thought you already knew about them. Or they might mention something that leads on to a new, more interesting line of questioning.
Don’t feel you have to stick slavishly to your questions
This is a conversation, after all. Feel free to react to what is said in the interview and use the information that the person is telling you to formulate other relevant questions as you go along.
This, of course, means that you will have to listen to what your interviewee is saying, while they are saying it. It seems an obvious thing to say, but it’s easy to spend your time looking at your questions and firing them at the person.