Friday, January 18, 2013

Keep it Short (When Someone is Asking You Questions)

In the last few months I have been an interviewer and an interviewee, I have sat on selection panels for jobs, moderated conference plenary panels, guided a "Fireside Chat" and been asked questions myself by reporters. In every case, the best thing you can do for yourself when you are answering questions, is KEEP IT SHORT.

The recruitment panel has a long list of questions to ask, always longer than the time available, but they really really want to know the answers. If you go on and on and on they will not get the data they need in order to consider your candidacy most effectively. Keep it short and content rich, and let them ask further probing questions if they want more.

That TV, or radio interviewer, journalist or panel moderator also has a list of questions, and like the recruiter they want to ask them all. The question sequence has been designed to get somewhere, to tell a story or make some essential points in a way that aims to generate a dialogue that is also interesting to listeners than a straight Q&A. If you get stuck with long responses on the first two questions, that moderator or journalist is not going to get where they want to go, the story won't be unfold and be told, the essential points potentially missed, and again you will not have gotten the best opportunity to share what you think.

Note to self: I guess the same goes for blog posts, let me stop here, enough said!

Workshop Games Everywhere: Even from Proust and Vanity Fair

I was working with an intact team (e.g. working in the same office space) recently on a retreat, the third that I had run with them over the years. Now, working with the same group on a long term basis is wonderful for a facilitator as it absolutely demands creativity and innovation; you cannot fall back on your favourite workshop activities over and over again (like you may be tempted to do when you work with new groups each time).

For this retreat, as for many, further strengthening relationships among team members was one of the soft outcomes desired - getting to know one another better, helping people look behind the office every day and delve a little deeper into what makes people tick.

One of the opening activities for any workshop is some kind of introductions at the onset of the day. Now with an intact team, this might be more of a "check-in" as everyone knows each others name, position in the organisation, etc. For this particular team, which in some cases knew each other from years of co-work, I decided to go a little deeper than usual and still keep it relatively light in the dynamic.

I am a fan of Vanity Fair magazine and one feature of the magazine is an interview, called the Proust Questionnaire (after the French novelist, critic and thinker Marcel Proust) on the last page that has a set of intriguing questions - things like:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness? 
  • Who are your heroes in real life? 
  • What is your motto?
  • Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  • What is your favourite journey?
  • Which talent would you most like to have?
  • What is your most treasured possession?
...and so on. I took out some of the strongest ones, like "What would you regard as the lowest depth of misery?" and "How would you like to die" etc. because that was not the feeling that I was going for at 09:00 in the morning. You can see some samples of the Proust Questionnaire on the Vanity Fair website.

In the end I had a good number of questions that I liked, but in total that was less than the number of people, so I used the questions twice.

  1. First I numbered the questions 1-14 (that is how many questions from the Proust Questionnaire that I ended up using), I liked the progression in the Vanity Fair interviews, so I used that order more or less.
  2. Typed them into a matrix that fit on an A4 sheet and printed it out.
  3. Copied it twice on coloured paper - yellow- I did this as it is just a little more visually interesting than the white paper that is laying all over workshop tables.
  4. I cut up the matrix, both sheets, so that I had 28 little squares, numbered, each with one of the Proust Questionnaire questions on it. 
  5. I put all the little squares of paper in an envelope.

Running the activity: 
  1. After I briefed the activity, I asked everyone to pick a square of paper from the envelope, while I walked around with the envelope.
  2. I told them that some questions would be doubled up.
  3. I gave people 2-3 minutes to think about their answers. As they picked slips and read the questions I heard some nervous laughter. ( I let someone who wanted to change their question, although the second one was not much "easier" than the first)
  4. Then I called the numbers one at a time and asked people to stand, read their question and share their response. 
  5. We did this until all were read out and everyone had answered.
What worked

The random nature of the question selection (picking from an envelope), the diversity of questions (they were all different except for the few pairs- I read out the questions that were not selected, as even in themselves they are thought-provoking questions), and the unknown ordering (not knowing who would be next) all added some surprise and a little drama to the exercise. And the provocative nature of the Proust Questionnaire questions really made people think. It was still challenge by choice - people could change their question if they wanted, but there really are no easy questions, and they could choose how they wanted to answer it. 

As the facilitator I could also choose the easier or the more provocative questions from the Proust Questionnaire depending on what I knew about the group and their interest in pushing the envelope together. As I mentioned, this was a group of people who know each other pretty well, but in most cases, these kinds of topics had not come up in their every day work discussions, so people listened and were deeply curious about their colleagues' responses.


The answers were conversation starters all of them, they added something different to what colleagues already knew about their fellow team members, and it was a fun way to start the day. And in this case, the game was NEW (they were the first group to ever play that particular "game"). 

You might need a new activity or game from time to time when you work with groups frequently. Look around you - you can find game and activity elements everywhere, even inspired by Proust or your favorite magazine!