What makes a question a terrible question?

Yesterday I needed a few brilliant ideas so I turned to my chat box and saw who among my tech connections are online and it happens that a social media “big shot” was online so I wrote:

“Hi [name]
I was wondering if you could share some crazy ideas. Like what’s the craziest thing you’d do for something you’d really want?”

I fired up the question hoping it was interesting and thought-provoking. I was totally taken aback by her answer:

“What made you think I would share ideas with you?”

I told her I’m sorry if she doesn’t want to answer.

Now I get it, maybe she felt insulted and violated that she’s someone that has mastered her skill. And maybe I have been stupid to ask for her ideas when she’s actually paid to give people ideas. But I must tell you that her response hurts because I really look up to her.

Penelope, I wonder if is that how most “big shots” really respond? Like when a blog reader asks you a question, would you feel insulted that I solicit your opinion or idea for free?

I would really appreciate your comment on this. Perhaps you could shed me and your other blog readers some light as to when is it good to ask questions, or is it even okay to ask professionals like her when she does consulting for a living. I thought it was an innocent question, but what do you think?

6 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    The answer you received should have been helpful to you. Your question was just awful. It was too broad. You were asking someone else to do hard thinking for you. And you were not offering anything in return. When you ask a terrible question, you waste the person’s time.

    What people really want in exchange for their great idea is someone who they respect as recognizing a great idea to say, “Oh, that’s great.” But you are not that person. So what are you giving?

    “Big shots” don’t think of themselves as big shots. Because that’s lame and also meaningless. I think you are talking about people who are busy. They are busy because they have lots of opportunities and they have to be super careful how they spend their time so they keep growing and meeting their goals.

    To get to someone who is really busy, as them a question that only they can answer. Or it’s in their speciality. Don’t ask me what software to use to start a blog. Clearly there are 10 million people who could answer that. And I’m not even that smart about it. Ask me how long is too long for a guest post on a personal blog. It’s a specific question, and there are only about 100 people who would be able to give a good answer, and it will take me 10 seconds to read the email and respond so I’ll feel good that I did a nice thing and it didn’t take too long.

    Asking questions is such an important skill. People meet their goals much faster if they are good at asking questions because you don’t need to learn everything on your own. And also, the more of your questions a person answers, the more they become invested in your success.

    This is true for everything. I had a really hard time navigating the pro beach volleyball circuit because I was scared to ask questions because I didn’t want to look stupid. But in business, my bosses taught me to ask questions so they could give me more responsibility faster. It was amazing to me that they knew I needed that skill before I was safe to delegate big projects to.

    You need the question asking skill for everything in life. I leveraged that skill in the cello world. I knew nothing about the music world and asked questions all the time, of all different types of people, so I could get my son to Juilliard. (And now I’m still asking questions – because I have no idea what to do next!)

    My son is preparing for the AP Chemistry test right now. And he was doing poorly on practice tests. I hired tutors and asked them a lot of questions about studying until I could understand what my son needed. Then I hired the right tutor for him (hopefully).

    Here are blog posts I’ve written about asking questions. I have thought about this skill in a different way, each time it’s saved me.




  2. Julia
    Julia says:

    I agree with Penelope. When asking a question to a professional who should reply for free, you need to offer something back. Either your question is super unique and thought provoking, or you need to show you have done your research on the topic and found a few options but are not sure or happy about them.

    I work as a translator and experienced professionals are really bothered in forums when someone comes up with questions like “hey, how do you translate XXX?”. This happens ALL of the time and often the asker is offended when we ask for context, but dude, the reply is always the same: 1) what is the language? (yeah, they ask and don’t even bother to say what language they are translating from/to) 2) what is the context? (the whole sentence, the type of text/media, the reading audience, what is the character doing if fiction etc.) 3) where have you already looked (google? Oxford’s? company glossary?) and what have you found and why aren’t you happy with that?

    If you don’t give that, only the newbies will answer (and with that sort of insufficient question, their answers will often be plain wrong) because they don’t know better. Professionals can’t be bothered.

    • Nia
      Nia says:

      Oh interesting. The criteria for a good translation question are nearly exactly the same as for programming questions on forums. Programming forums are full of amazingly helpful people, but if you don’t follow the rules, no-one wants to help you and you just end up getting told off.

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Penelope, you say – “My son is preparing for the AP Chemistry test right now. And he was doing poorly on practice tests. I hired tutors and asked them a lot of questions about studying until I could understand what my son needed. Then I hired the right tutor for him (hopefully).” – which made me think of the nature of those tests.
    I always did well taking tests given by teachers who also taught the subject material and then drew up questions to test the students knowledge of the material taught in their class. I did well enough with tests such as the AP Chemistry and the like but not as well. When I read your statement about Yefet’s difficulty with these tests, it made me think back to when I was about his age and wonder why. Why are some tests easier or more difficult than others? It occurred to me it has to do with the nature of the test. A test given by a teacher whose class you attend has material that was covered in the class in a certain manner and perspective of the teacher. The test given by that teacher and the questions asked are usually fairly predictable. Not so with a test like AP Chemistry. I don’t know how they come up with the questions that they do but I think it is generated by a committee of many different personalities and different views of what’s important and how the questions are phrased. It seems to me it makes it more difficult for the student to answer correctly even if they know the subject material.
    So the question is – how do you do a better job of answering the
    question correctly? I think it comes down to reading and understanding the question correctly. It may require reading the question two or even three times if you’re not sure of what’s being asked. The problem with doing it this way is it takes more time and these tests are timed so you have to be aware of that fact.
    So now I see I’ve focused on the ‘answering the question’ rather than ‘studying the material’. My answer may be very similar and that is reading comprehension. I don’t know as I’ve never seen Yefet study or be tested but it’s something to consider. Science is much more than numbers, formulas and graphs even though sometimes that’s all it looks like. These are just some of my ramblings. I hope Yefet does well with his studying and testing.

  4. jessica
    jessica says:

    Whenever I ask a question to someone I don’t personally know I ask myself why? First, to clear up if it’s worth my time or their time and then to put myself in their shoes. If I know a bit about the person, I start off stating what I know they know in relation to the topic then ask the question I haven’t seen publicly answered before that is substantial and relational and specific. If it meets those three criteria I ask, if not I pass because what’s the point to either party- I clearly am not looking for something specific and they wont be bothered to respond in kind due to as Penelope states- ‘time’.

  5. Reader
    Reader says:

    My two cents:
    Sometimes it’s not so much the question but the way it’s asked. When I know someone strictly on a professional (not personal) level, or am a fan of theirs, I mentally run through a few things before I just say or email whatever I’m thinking right then and there. If I’m not sure I save it in Drafts and in a few hours re-read and see if it still sounds as awesome as I thought when I wrote it.

    1. What’s my objective? To get professional advice or have a personal conversation? (If I don’t know them personally already I usually steer clear of chatting them up randomly on Messenger and email instead…)

    If I want professional advice I try to make it clear to them that it’s a professional inquiry and that I will be respectful of the time and effort they’re going to spend responding to me. For example, something like Dear ______, My name is _______. I’m a whatever in the whatever industry and I write blogs. I’ve been a reader of your blog Such and Such since (whenever) and wanted to compliment you about it, I think it’s (whatever you think it is — inspired, creative, intelligent, informative, whatever). I am brainstorming ideas for my writing and am wondering if you’d be willing to offer some input on this topic. If you do contribute your thoughts please let me know how to credit it (or however you say it). Thanks, take care, love ya never change, ta ta, etc. You may or may not get the response or mentoring/advice you want. If you do get a reply, you can use it as the basis for asking other questions or networking with them and stuff.

    If I want to get to know them personally, I prepare for possible rejection. Because life has taught me that not everyone I want to be friends and chat with, wants to be friends with me. I don’t take it personally — some people enjoy doing stuff solo, some people have a big enough circle of friends already, some just might not find me that interesting, whatever. Yeah, it can sting a little and you might feel silly when they respond to your “warm, friendly, open” style with a cold shoulder or a a “Closed, sorry” message.

    Even if you’re naturally friendly, it’s best to not give off a vibe that says “Hey! Let’s be friends! Hey! Like me! Like me!” to everyone. It makes some people uncomfortable and it makes you seem a little bit naive and inexperienced no matter how old you are.

    That being said, it is 2018, it’s the internet, and there is no rule saying you can’t reach out and be social to someone you want to talk to. If you felt the response was rude, you can say so if you want to and no one is going to tell you your feelings are not vaild including me. I’ve just learned over time though that people are usually more wary about sharing info and usually less open to getting personal and being buddies than I’m anticipated, so I try to adjust my own style to be a little more cool and professional.

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