An open-ended question is designed to facilitate discussion or “to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject’s own knowledge and/or feelings” (MediaCollege.com). It is the opposite of a closed question, which will elicit short or monosyllabic answers (like “yes” or “no”).
Learning how to ask probing questions is an important skill for journalists, communicators, managers, sales staff, researchers — anyone whose job relies on soliciting information from other people.
Here are some examples of open versus closed questions:
|Closed Questions||Open-Ended Questions|
|Who are you voting for in this election?||What do you think about the two candidates in this election?|
|With all the changing methods in receiving and sending communication in the past 10 years, has this had an influence on our communication culture?||How have changes in communication methods over the past 10 years influenced our communication culture?|
|Does the new information age make us better educated or knowledgeable people?||What are the impacts of digital information age on our education and knowledge?|
Open-ended questions often begin with “what” or “how”. They can also begin with something as simple as “what do you think about …” or “what do you think would happen if…” Be careful with questions that begin with “why” — although they are open-ended, they can sometimes be interpreted as aggressive (which means the person on the receiving end of the question gets defensive).
Another way to encourage people to talk in an interview is to “ask” the interviewee to “tell me about …” This tactic isn’t a question, but it is an invitation to talk.