The Unique Power of Open-Ended Questions
I’ve been working on a project with a strong focus on open-ended questions and it’s gotten me thinking about a few things.
I lean toward the socially awkward, so learning to have effective conversations has been a lifelong process for me. Asking questions is a lifesaver for socially awkward humans, because questions allow us to point the spotlight at the other person. They also trigger our curiosity, which allows us to loosen up and get over ourselves.
However, open-ended questions are unique beasts and they carry a special power.
Advertisers tend to ask leading questions. They want us to imagine a version of our lives that they’ve already engineered and packaged, so we’ll give them our money. This is the cynical side of advertising and the cynical side of sales.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
If you have a genuinely meaningful product or are genuinely trying to connect with people, your message doesn’t have to be distilled into a y/n format. Instead, maybe you could ask more. What would it look like if we inspired people to imagine a bigger or better version of their lives, instead of feeding them the answers? What if we let the question be the beginning of the story, instead of the end?
Maybe we’d all get a little less cynical.
You might laugh at this, but I struggled to come up with good, open-ended questions. The other kind is so much easier to write.
Here are a few examples I came up with:
- If you could change anything about your life, what would it be? What would you do that you can’t do now?
- What is the nicest thing you’ve ever done for a friend? What is the nicest thing a friend has done for you?
- If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live? What’s stopping you?
- If you could visit any historical era, which one would you choose and why? What do you like about being alive right now?
- If you had an infinite supply of cash, what would you buy?
Ultimately, they’re story prompts. Each question only exists to start the snowball rolling down the hill.
Asking an open-ended question means you risk losing control of the outcome, but isn’t that kind of magnificent? It represents a shift in philosophy where controlling people isn’t the only way to make money. Maybe you can still get by if you set them free.