The best questions are not necessarily those that get answers, but those that lead to sharper questions.

My friend Marci Alboher, who writes for the New York Times, often calls me to ask questions about blogging and personal branding. I usually give her strongly opinionated answers and add a little emphasis about how I know that I’m right.

Then she usually does not take my advice. But these are great conversations because she asks really interesting questions – like how do the brand of a journalist and the brand of the publication interact? And my best answers to Marci are when I ask more questions.

Mark Halpern reported in Vocabula (subscription) about a study on expert advice. He says that people who call themselves experts are no better at making predictions about the future than anyone else, but experts talk more confidently about their opinions, and generally don’t get penalized for being wrong.

This makes me think we look to experts more to frame conversation. Experts ask questions similar to those that are burning in our own heads, but the experts ask sharper questions; the answers we can take or leave, but the questions change us.

For example, I ask myself all the time, Am I fat? Do I look good? What number am I on a scale of one to ten? They are insane questions, I know. And there is no good answer. But so what? I ask myself anyway. And sometimes, if I’m feeling comfortable about showing my most pathetic, desperate side of myself, I’ll ask a friend. But to be honest, no answer ever surprises me.

Then I saw Dove’s fun and fascinating video of what it takes to get a woman ready for a billboard photo. I watched three times. I love the video because instead of telling me “don’t worry – you look fine” it implicitly suggests some sharper questions I could be asking. (Hat tip: Indie Bloggers)

And did you know that women’s eyes are digitally enlarged on billboards? This is interesting to me because a man can tell instinctively when a woman is interested in him by the way her eyes dilate, according to Barbara and Allen Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language. Asking someone if they want to have sex is not usually straightforward and clear, but looking at whether or not her eyes are dilated is a primal way that men sharpen the question.

Here’s another video I love: Did You Know? Shift Happens, by Karl Fisch. This video is fun because I learned so much about how the world is changing. Fisch asks questions and answers them. Here are some examples of those answers:

  • If MySpace were a country it would be the 11th most populous in the world (right above Mexico) and the average MySpace page is visited 30 times a day.
  • One week of the New York Times is more information than someone would have come across in a lifetime in 1800.
  • The department of labor says the top ten jobs that will be in demand in 2010 did not exist in 2004.

One interesting thing about these answers is that they only feel satisfying if you use them to create better questions.

When I encounter someone or something that forces me to ask sharper questions, the first thing I do is check in with myself. Am I excited or scared? I hate having to hear that the world is not what I thought it was. Everyone has cognitive dissonance, even me. But I also would hate to be in a world where nothing changes. And the best thing we can do to keep up is to accept that sharper questions are often more satisfying than quickie answers.

22 replies
  1. Maureen Sharib
    Maureen Sharib says:

    “The department of labor says the top ten jobs that will be in demand in 2010 did not exist in 2004.”
    What are those top ten jobs? Do they know yet?

    This reminds me of something someone said to me a long time ago when I was starting a business. “Don’t worry about who’s on board today because in three years most of them will be gone.” Wow. It blew me away at the time but he was right. Most of the faces around me within three years were different!

    Maureen

    * * * * * * * *
    Good question. I don’t think they know. But I hope one of those top-ten most in-demand jobs is being a blogger :)
    -Penelope

  2. Recruiting Animal
    Recruiting Animal says:

    > Everyone has cognitive dissonance, even me.

    Even you? That was a joke, right?

    > Am I fat? Do I look good? What number am I on a scale of one to ten? They are insane questions…

    These are reasonable questions. Only insane when we make them the be-all and end-all.

    > eye dilation?

    If her eyes open wide and she flashes a big smile, I’m going to guess that she likes me. But the fact that subjects might be able to guess who likes them when forced to do so in a psych experiment, doesn’t mean that we know in real life.

  3. Brian C.B.
    Brian C.B. says:

    I’m sorry, but the news that “experts” don’t get called to account for their repeated mistakes so long as those experts don’t admit them is not, really, so very new. Richard Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, William Kristol, Charles Krautheimer…I haven’t noticed any of these people spending less time in the hog pen of wingnut welfare think tanks or on “Meet the Press” or “Fox with Brit Hume” because they’ve been repeatedly, catastrophically wrong about the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.

  4. tamar
    tamar says:

    Not without good reason do we have the story of Gertrude Stein and the questioner at her deathbed.

    Ms. Stein, what is the answer? To which the writer replied, what is the question?

    Indeed, a far greater matter.

  5. tamar
    tamar says:

    CONTINUED…

    Sorry, I should have checked further before posting above.

    Here is more on Gertrude Stein (from Wikipedia):

    . . . when Stein was being wheeled into the operating room for surgery on her stomach, she asked Toklas, “What is the answer?” When Toklas did not answer, Stein said, “In that case, what is the question?”

  6. russ eckel
    russ eckel says:

    In the dialogue process, the role of the Alchemist is to ask the “gift question”. The gift question is the one that gets others in the group unstuck and in puruit of better questions. Can you be your own Alchemist? Yes. But it helps to have alchemists out there like you promting the rest of us to go deeper.

    Great video link. Thanks.

  7. thom singer
    thom singer says:

    This stat facinates me:

    “One week of the New York Times is more information than someone would have come across in a lifetime in 1800”.

    With all the information that we have at our fingertips via TV news, NY Times (and other periodicals), the internet (including, but not limited to, blogs, message boards, listserves, videos, news sites, ebooks, etc…) what are we doing with it??? Are we happier and more at peace as people? Are we making the world a better, safer and more stable place?

    Is having the latest information on Paris Hilton equal to having the latest information on the tragedy in Darfur? Can we and do we embrace the useful information that allows us to be more productive ….. or does it just all become fluff that clouds or minds and makes us retreat more into ourselves?

    Is someone who has read all that information in one week of the NY Times somehow better than someone in 1800?

  8. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Similar to Thom above, I’m most intruiged by the answers that actually don’t tell you much, but instead raise an important “so what” question.

    If MySpace were a country it would be the 11th most populous in the world (right above Mexico)

    Interesting. So in what ways is MySpace like a country. Is there a shared sense of belonging – an “IMagined Community”? Does My Space offer similar services as “the state” (ie a national government)? Upon thinking about it this way, I’m not so sure MySpace is like a country.

    The department of labor says the top ten jobs that will be in demand in 2010 did not exist in 2004.

    So what are these jobs? Am I well positioned to apply for one of them (should I need it), am I preparing my children to work in that world?

    Often I find “statistical” answers from surveys like a national census to lead to the most interesting questions. They usually start with “So why is that” what forces led to that situation.

  9. Carol Quovadis
    Carol Quovadis says:

    Great post Penelope. So much insightful information. I logged on for 5 minutes and ended up browsing for 30 on that one post and links.- Sent it to a few friends. The Dove video link was terrific. I’m also impressed you linked to a post which actually criticises you!
    On the advertising video, there's actually plans here, using Bluetooth technology, to send mobile phone users, tailored advertising text messages if they pass within a certain distance of bus stop shelters, AARGH

  10. Richard
    Richard says:

    While I agree that experts often ask more focused and considered questions, those that simply ask MORE questions are just as lost as the non-expert. It is a question of quality v. quantity. A hallmark of an expert: speaking with informed authority without demanding the assent of the listener.

  11. erotik seks
    erotik seks says:

    In the dialogue process, the role of the Alchemist is to ask the "gift question". The gift question is the one that gets others in the group unstuck and in puruit of better questions. Can you be your own Alchemist? Yes. But it helps to have alchemists out there like you promting the rest of us to go deeper.

  12. Blogosfera
    Blogosfera says:

    Badly need your help. A sympathetic Scot summed it all up very neatly in the remark, “You should make a point of trying every experience once, excepting incest and folk dancing.”
    I am from Norway and also now’m speaking English, please tell me right I wrote the following sentence: “A new india seo seo company in india offering google seo services, web design services.Internet marketing and seo discussion forum.”

    Regards :( Wilona.

  13. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m here as a result of following a link on today’s post. I’m thinking if I live long enough, I’ll be able to read all the posts on this blog. So I thought since this post is about two years old, I’d update the Did You Know? Shift Happens link to it’s latest version (Fall 2009) – Did You Know 4.0 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ILQrUrEWe8 .

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