Stop Trying to Ask ‘Smart Questions’

“Can you just explain this to me like I barely know anything about this subject?”

Drawing of a profile of a face, with a lightbulb and a question mark
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

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For most of my life, I thought I was pretty good at asking questions. After all, that is sort of my job as a journalist. Explaining complex ideas in simple terms requires pulling myself out of a pit of ignorance using the rope of other people’s expertise. I can’t do it without begging for a lot of help.

But for most of my professional life, I labored under a powerful delusion. I thought that asking Smart Questions was of the utmost importance.

A Smart Question is a query designed to advertise the wisdom of the asker. The point may be to establish that the interviewer and interviewee are on equal intellectual footing. Sometimes, the question is designed to get the source to begin the answer with a brief compliment: “That’s a smart question!” or, on a good day, “That’s a really smart question!”

I used to think these kudos were a sign that my investigation was on the right track. I didn’t want to embarrass myself on the phone with a government official or an academic. And a part of me just wanted the conversations to go as pleasantly as possible.

But after many years of subscribing to the theory of Smart Questions, I’ve decided that I’ve been mostly wrong. Smart Questions are, typically, kind of dumb. And, just as typical, questions that might initially seem dumb or underinformed, or downright unintelligent, are the smartest way to learn stuff if you’re a journalist, an academic, or anybody else.

This realization crystallized for me in several stages. A few years back, when I did more editing work at The Atlantic, I realized that popular articles tended to scope out to see the full landscape of an issue. So, for example, rather than fixate on some lurid statistic about New York City rents, the popular piece would ask a broad question such as “Why are rents so expensive in the U.S.?” or “Why can’t America build enough homes?” We called these queries Big Dumb Questions.

Readers seemed to like the Big Dumb Question stories because the articles used the day’s news to investigate a deeper truth about the world. Personally, I liked them because they changed the way I thought about asking questions. Reporting out these BDQs required my writers and me to ask a lot of, well, BDQs. Really revelatory and surprising answers can come from extremely basic questions such as:

  • “Can you just explain this to me like I barely know anything about this subject?”
  • “What, if anything, is actually interesting or new about this story?”
  • “Let’s say everything you say is going to happen really does happen. Then what happens?”

And perhaps most important of all:

  • “Is there some angle here that I’m not even seeing?”

None of these questions assume any knowledge. None of them reveal much intelligence. It’s their openness that I’ve found to be useful. Narrow and specific queries, with a preamble and even some fancy jargon, are still useful here and there, but they’re a bit like fishing for a trout and catching a trout. The most interesting interviews are more like fishing around and reeling in a shark, or a treasure chest, or a drowned aircraft carrier—something you never expected to see on the hook. The best interviews surprise the interviewer, and being surprised is hard if you’re fixated on being smart.

I had thought I’d kicked the Smart Question habit before I started recording my first podcast, several years ago. Producing an edited podcast requires one to listen back to interviews again, and again, and again. In my case, this meant having to listen to hour after hour of my blabbering, try-hard, obsequious nonsense. The experience was egotistically ruinous. I was still asking Smart Questions!

In speaking with other journalists about this problem, I’ve learned that smart-question-itis is a malady that afflicts the whole profession. Charles Duhigg, the Pulitzer Prize winner and author of The Power of Habit, got his start as a journalist with the Business section of The Washington Post. He, too, thought he knew how to ask questions.

“I would try to show the person that I spoke their language by using business terms and acronyms,” Duhigg told me. He assumed that sources would tell him more stuff if they thought he was smart. “But they did not think I was smart, and all their comments were in ‘business-ese’”—that is, corporate gobbledygook and arcane abbreviations—“which meant many of their answers were totally unusable,” he said.

Duhigg quickly understood how counterproductive feigning intelligence was during the process of trying to collect it. “I realized that my job was not to ask questions that the source knows the answer to but to trick the source into doing my job,” he said. The key was to get them to tell him what questions he ought to be asking: “They know the most interesting things to talk about, and I don’t. So my goal is to ask sort of stupid questions and make them think I’m so dumb so they have to give me advice about how I ought to write this article.”

This approach inverts the conventional understanding of an interview. Most people think the point of a good question is to get a good answer, but maybe that’s wrong. Maybe the point of a good question is to arrive at a better question.

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