Are you making sure the strategic questions you use are “open, neutral, and lean”?

There is a lot on the Brainzooming blog about the value of collecting and asking great strategic questions. Complementing those articles, a recent piece from the Pointer Review Project Blog by Jason Fry on the ESPN website highlighted a recommended strategic question formula. The recommendation comes via John Sawatsky, a well-known Canadian investigative reporter.

Sawatsky uses a method he developed systematically over the last thirty years that centers on open, neutral, and lean questions. The breakthrough to his strategic question formula occurred working with students to conduct research for a book on Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Each week during the project, he gave all his students the same questions to ask potential interviewees. He expected some students to be good interviewers and some not so good, but nearly without fail, the type of question determined success more than an individual interviewer’s skills.

Sawatsky found that “open, neutral, and lean” questions were consistently more successful at getting interview sources to open up with answers that yielded useful information and insight.

What are Open, Lean, and Neutral Questions?

Here are the three characteristics and how they play into the strategic question formula:

  • Open questions – These can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Open questions probe on what, how, and why.
  • Neutral questions – The queries avoid adding value statements and judgments, which distract and bias the respondent.
  • Lean questions – As the name suggests, these are brief and conceptually simple. Lean questions keep the respondent on point and don’t allow them to pick and choose what they want to answer.

This strategic question formula is an intriguing guide in not only developing new questions, but checking those already in use to make sure they’re as productive as possible.

What ways do you hone strategic questions you use? How might the open, neutral, and lean question formula influence your approach? – Barrett Sydnor


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