In your coaching sessions, consulting, and workshops, questions are the heart of the process. And the people are sitting right there, so they can answer and you can listen. In presentations and key note speeches, they can’t answer – but we still use questions and feel the frisson as the question hangs in the air. It feels energetic and alive. In writing, questions change their mood completely. What works well in a speech suddenly turns patronising, even irritating, in a book. So what do we do? To write great questions, let’s first look at three kinds of bad questions: rhetorical questions, yes/no questions, and masterclass questions. Then we’ll turn that around and see how to write awesome coaching questions.
So what do we do? That’s a rhetorical question: I don’t expect you to answer; I’m going to tell you immediately. It works fantastically in speaking – rhetoric is the art of speaking. It works okay in blogs. In books, use them sparingly. After all, who doesn’t want to write better questions? Still rhetorical – getting irritating: the answer’s so obvious I’m not even going to give it. So when is a good time to start asking good quality questions? Now! Very annoying now: I answer it, but the answer is boring. It adds no information. Following so far? Great! Now I’m pretending you get to answer, but you don’t, and I answer for you. It’s irritating. So how can you avoid irritating the reader? That’s a great question. No it’s not – I’m pretending you asked a question and putting words in your mouth again. It’s starting to drive you crazy, isn’t it? Rhetorical questions can be problematic, can’t they? Those are tag questions and intensely patronising. It’s the voice of a nurse saying, “Feeling a bit sick, are we?”
The fabulous rhetorical question, revered by the ancient Greeks, turns evil in writing. Use them very, sparingly and always avoid…
- questions you answer, especially where the answer is dull or obvious
- pretending the reader is answering or asking a question
- tag questions
Yes / No questions
Do you use questions in your writing? Yes/No questions are closed questions. Even at their most innocent, the answers are boring. They get more evil when there’s only one right answer. Do you think your questions might be unhelpful for some of your readers? Could you write better questions? Could you be a better person? Are you always as kind as you could be? Duh. These are so vague, with so many conditionals (could, might, some), that you can only answer one thing: YES, they might be unhelpful for some! YES, they could be better – perfection’s the limit! I’m not perfect! Aaargh, of course I’m not always as kind as I could be, I’m not a bloody saint! These questions turn bullying, and intensely frustrating for readers. We often use them as leading questions: Do you think you use too many yes/no questions in your writing? Let’s look at how to avoid that.
At best, yes/no questions are dull. At worst, they’re bullying, maddening, and patronising. Always avoid them, especially…
- when there’s only one right answer
- when you’re leading into another subject
So – no rhetorical questions, no yes/no questions. Think carefully about this: How can you write better questions?
That’s an awful question. That’s what I’m supposed to tell you! How can you be more organised? What do you need to do to find focus, direction, and balance in your life? How do you match your brand to your clients’ needs? These aren’t coaching questions; they’re for the masterclass. If someone’s buying your book, they aren’t the masterclass: they need help on this subject and they need you to help them.
How to write great questions
Turn the evil questions around and we get three pure-gold principles for great questions:
- You want the answer. You don’t already know it and different readers will have different answers.
- It’s open-ended. Start with how, what, when, where, who, and why. Then you get answers with content, not just yes or no. Be wary of why, though – it easily becomes more masterclass.
- They can answer. You aren’t expecting them to have your expertise, your skill-set, or extraordinary insight. They’re learning: pitch it at their level. Guide them through the process. If a question feels trickier, give them further questions as guidance, sample answers from other people, or options to choose from. If you can’t think of sample answers or options, chances are they can’t answer either!
What are you writing at the moment? Who are your readers – how much expertise do they already have? How many of your questions are yes/no and how many are open-ended? How do you want the readers to use your questions – as reflection, to make notes, to put into immediate action?
What’s the first thing you’re going to do to put this writing-help into practice?