How to Ask Good Questions? It’s Not About You, It’s About Them

Ideal interviews are ones where you and the interviewer(s) are carrying a normal conversation. Both parties take turns asking and answering questions within the flow of the conversation, and you don’t feel like you’re part of an interrogation. While you may not have the opportunity to ask questions in the middle of the interview, you will always be given at least a few minutes at the end.

Most people now know that asking good questions is a key part of the interview. Asking the right type of questions can definitely leave the interviewer with a great impression about you. But what are good questions to ask? Here are 3 rules to keep in mind:

1. Only ask questions you genuinely want to know the answer to

This first rule may sound basic, but it is violated over 50% of the time. An experienced interviewer has heard virtually every question there is, especially from the younger candidate pool. We can tell almost immediately whether someone told you to ask that question to impress us, or whether you really want to know the answer. Not genuine = lose points and credibility.

“What does your company do in terms of Corporate Social Responsibility?” If we haven’t talked once about CSR during the interview, and this is how the question is posed to me, I would immediately be skeptical. Why does this person want to know about CSR all of a sudden? Are they just trying to impress me with the latest corporate mumbo jumbo? Do they even know what CSR means??

2. Don’t ask open-ended questions; try to be as specific as possible

Interviewers have to follow a fairly strict timeline, especially if they are talking to multiple candidates in one day. When it comes time to have you ask questions, the last thing we want to do is have to use our brains and think really hard. That will annoy us more than impress us. Bad examples: “What’s the one thing that you love about your job that makes you get out of bed each morning?” “What’s the company culture like?”

3. Always start your question with a bit of a preamble

If you follow Rule #3, you will almost always adhere to Rule #1 & #2. Stated another way, don’t simply jump in and ask your question right off the bat. Start by giving a bit of a description of what you know about the subject of your question. Tell us what you have read, what you’ve heard, your opinion on the matter, or what others have told you, and then ask your question.

Following this format will give you the opportunity to bring up all the research you’ve done ahead of time and maybe even get some credit for it. By giving a preamble, you’ve also automatically made the question more specific. Finally, if you’ve shown me the lengths of your research and your interest in the topic, you will come across much more genuine and sincere.

Now, if you truly are interested in the corporate culture, here’s a better way you could ask the question. “I read on your company’s website that integrity and respect for others are 2 of your most important values. Speaking to previous interns, they also echoed similar thoughts. How do these values translate into the everyday culture in the workplace?” Here, you’ve shown the interviewer that you really care about this topic. You’ve not only done research from the website, but have also gone out of your way to talk to other interns that have worked for us. Finally, the question is much more specific by asking me to comment on integrity and respect for others, not just company culture in general which can mean so many different things.

A final point to keep in mind, in addition to the 3 rules…Try not to ask “selfish” questions, questions that are only about you, what’s in it for you. “What are the working hours like?” “Will there be any overseas opportunities during this internship?” “What is the training program like?”

If you want to impress someone, the last thing you want to do is simply talk about yourself, and ask questions that only you care about. If you want to leave a lasting impression, try to ask questions that they will care about. Find out about their interests, their challenges, their ideas. Obviously, keep it professional, and try to never put the interviewers in an embarrassing situation (e.g. talking about a recent corporate scandal that has been in the news). It’s not about you, it’s about them.

10 Comments

  1. Frank March 11, 2010 9:52 am 

    Great points to raise – I know I have conducted a number of interviews & all your points strike true. I am (almost) always interested in candidates that ask the right questions – those with no questions leave me thinking they are either (1) disinterested or (2) don’t know what questions to ask on a daily basis. Asking questions leaves me with the thinking that they can work independently, & know when to re-engage me to resolve a problem!

  2. JK March 11, 2010 4:57 pm 

    Frank, thanks for weighing in. Good to see that some practices are still very universal, and that you’re looking for the same things even in your part of the world. Hope all is well Down Under!

  3. Doug Sibley April 12, 2010 10:04 pm 

    John,

    Great site and article. I would add to your last point that you don’t want to avoid ‘selfish’ questions if they are important to you but you definitely want to be diplomatic about how you ask them and only ask if they are important (better yet, find out from someone other than the decision-maker). Great potential interns know they have choices about where to go. The best ‘selfish’ questions though are about how the student can successfully contribute (and successful contribution in an internship is a huge benefit to stick on a resume).

  4. JK April 12, 2010 10:41 pm 

    Hey Doug! Thanks for the comment and the feedback. Hope you’re doing well. Have you checked out the new CUTC10 website (www.cutc.ca)? Conference is happening in less than a month. If you’re in town, you should drop by to say hi.

  5. Doug Sibley April 13, 2010 12:21 pm 

    Jon,

    I’d love to stop by but I’m living in Shanghai. 10 years of CUTC – that’s just awesome. Best of luck with Kwantum Leap (love the name by the way) and let me know if there is anything I can do to help it along.

    – Doug

  6. JK April 13, 2010 12:29 pm 

    Awesome! You plan to be in Shanghai for awhile? If so, gotta make sure I say hi the next time I pass through. If you come down south to Singapore, make sure you do the same.

  7. Katie July 10, 2010 8:39 am 

    good article, jon. do the tips in it only apply to interview etiquette in singapore or beyond? thanks.

  8. JK July 10, 2010 10:11 am 

    Hi Katie. Thanks for the comment/question! These tips are definitely universal and not just for a Singapore context. Things evolve to a more advanced level depending on how experienced and deep your work history is, but these guidelines still are good ones to keep in mind.

  9. Zachery September 28, 2013 5:37 pm 

    Helpful info. Lucky me I discovered yourr site accidentally, and I’m shocked why
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  10. JK September 30, 2013 10:34 pm 

    Thanks for you comment Zachery! Hope we keep providing good stuff for you.

    JK

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