The Art Of Asking Questions | Dan Moulthrop | TEDxSHHS



so I want to start with a story and I'm gonna end with my favorite question but what I'm gonna try to communicate to you is a few lessons about asking questions because asking a good question is really about sort of executing the act of curiosity curiosity begins with a thought and then typically it what follows is a question and then ultimately what follows from that is a lot of learning and that's really what curiosity is all about when I was 16 years old I was in high school in New Jersey and I was working on a project my final culminating project for this class that I was taking which was a combination u.s. history and American literature class was a I was working on a project about the experiences of Vietnam veterans and their experiences in the war and I had been reading this book called Bloods which was a collection of oral histories of African American soldiers during the war and yeah the whole thing was just gripping to me I could not believe what these experiences were like and I've been reading Tim O'Brien and and other and and other writers who wrote about the Vietnam era but these actual experiences were just like cut right through me and there were interviews with people and they were – they were describing their experiences Green Berets who are describing their experiences of collecting trophies from their victims that they killed and I couldn't believe it so I wanted to interview soldiers people who had served during the war as part of my part of my project so this is obviously like I'm 16 years old I'm like I know how to do this I'll just go ask people questions everybody does that right so I'm on a train from princeton junction new jersey going up to newark to meet a friend of a friend of my father's who is running a homeless shelter who's a former Green Beret and he's probably like a six foot three african-american male and I'm like this little skinny kid like even skinnier than I am now from the suburbs of this independent school in New Jersey and I'm like asking questions about his life and what was that like when you were Green Beret in Vietnam but here's the thing in the end I did he met me at Penn Station in Newark he took me to the homeless shelter where he works and and we had an amazing conversation that really fueled that project and so the thing about the first thing I want you to understand about asking questions is that don't be afraid you can ask questions the real lesson in that that that I learned and I've learned again and again and again is that often people want to talk about the experiences that have shaped them even if those experiences are painful there's another lesson and it starts with this guy that Studs Terkel how many of you know Studs Terkel can I see show hands not too many of you oldsters the old tedsters no Studs Terkel Studs Terkel was probably the greatest living interviewer on the planet as far as I'm concerned but certainly in America when he was living he died in 2008 I was fortunate enough to interview him once he was deaf as a doornail I didn't like shout into the microphone for him to hear me but he was born in 1912 died in 2008 so 96 years old when he died had interviewed probably I mean thousands upon thousands of people his seminal work or a work that really set him apart which was also the the first work that I that I discovered by him was a book called working people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do and it was that that that thing not just like what do you do all day but how do you feel about what you do because all of us work you know 8 9 10 hours a day 40 50 60 70 hours a week and how we feel about how we spend that time is actually really important and Terkel this book is you know four hundred five hundred pages long have is some of you read it I'm guessing or read in it you've you've looked at and it's amazing right one of the the little games that I play with that book is trying to figure out what questions he asked to elicit the kinds of responses he got and he was talking with priests and prostitutes he was starting the cab drivers and CEOs postal workers garbage delivery men radio DJs everybody is in that book is represented in that book it was published in 1973 but it's outstanding reading I mean it really is and he has this sense of curiosity about people and their experiences that is uncommon and it comes through even though his words are nowhere in the book it comes through because he kept asking people about their lives so the second sort of point in all of this where am i pointing this thing there you go is to be curious be curious about the world don't just let it be out there and not wonder about it but be truly curious about other people's experiences about why things are the way they are this thing is dying I think but anyway maybe every time I go like this they'll move it no there we go so next lesson this guy is not Studs Terkel it's state senator Tim grindell he's now a judge in Geauga County but when I met him he was a state senator actually the first time I met him he was running for attorney general but several years ago I think this would have been around 2008 or so there was this thing happening that the Great Lakes water compact this gets back to why policy matters if a Meehan hours still here but the Great Lakes water compact was going to be was this agreement between all of the Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces the Canadian government the US government and everybody was going to agree that certain uses of the Great Lakes of the fresh water one-fifth of the world's fresh water which is at our doorstep would be protected and just about every legislature on the US side had agreed to it except for Ohio's and the provincial legislatures had also agreed to it on the Canadian side everybody was poised to do it except state senator Tim Grendel was worried about the water rights of private property owners who lived inside the watershed so I was interviewing him along with Matt Dolan who was then a state Rep from Geauga County and a champion of the compact and you know back and forth back and forth live on the air for 30 minutes 45 minutes we're getting close to the end of the program if I see state senator Grendel is there any language that we could put inside the legislation to authorize the compact that would set your mind at ease it's a really obvious question right is there any compromise here any middle ground and you said well yeah I think there is nobody had asked that question yet for some reason like it hadn't come up I don't know if he was waiting for enough enough press or something like that but sometimes the point of that is that sometimes the obvious question is the most important question to ask so don't be afraid to ask the obvious question because it may turn out that the obvious question needs to be asked at that moment this is my friend Noel Celeste any of you know Elsa last can get your hands fans have know Elsa last I'm a big fan of Noel Celeste she and I have done a lot of work together and one of the other areas in which you wind up sometimes asking questions isn't always the interview but sometimes you're facilitating a conversation teachers know this really well and in fact part of what part most of what I learned about asking questions I learned when I was teaching high school but one of the things that Noel taught me one day when we were planning out this group facilitation thing that we were working on and she said to me weird I got a step touching that and she said we're trying to figure out how to get a group of people to talk to one another about the things that matter to them most and we wanted to feed them a question that they would ask at one another and I was like well you just say like hey what do you care about now it doesn't really matter what do you what do you spend your time doing and she hit on it so what's your passion and that was the thing that cracked it wide open and ultimately the event was this two and a half hour event everybody was talking with one another strangers who had never met because we gave them the right question to use what's your passion and they talked to each other about their passions about what was deep inside their heart what they cared most about and so the lesson there that she has taught me and she continues to teach me every time we work together is that words matter this thing won't work there it is words matter the words you use matter a lot when you ask questions because they do matter this is Ishmael Beah up he wrote a book called long way gone he was a child soldier in Sierra Leone I interviewed him once and it was it was sort of terrifying to interview him the anxiety I experienced before interviewing a former child soldier and published author knowing that I what I wanted to ask him about that anxiety that I felt prior to that interview was akin to the anxiety I felt waiting back there and but I had to ask him during a live interview on the radio um in your book you talk about killing people can you tell us what that was like for you and how you live with that in those memories and it was so hard to do that but I knew that it was the question that needed to be asked and I knew it was the question ultimately it was the the stuff of his life the life shaping things that happened to him that I knew that he probably did want to actually talk about and what I was trying to do in that moment was find whatever capacity I had for empathy for someone who had been through those experiences not really I mean in that case empathy is really hard but what you have to do when you're interviewing anybody or when you're just asking questions of anybody is you really have to strive for empathy throw this down oh no powerpoint next time ami hanauer's right okay so strive for empathy and you have to do that because oftentimes the best conversations that you're having and the moments where your curiosity is really sated is when you're speaking with somebody who has a completely different experience from your own and when you strive for empathy you're striving to reach across that difference and put yourself in that person's shoes and really open your heart to their experience who knows who this is it's all the oldsters again Allen Ginsberg was a hero of mine I've got I'm supposed to stay on the on the red because that's where the good light is Allen Ginsberg it was a hero of mine beat poet and I had an opportunity to interview him many many years ago when I was in college I was writing my thesis about his poetry and I somehow somehow got an opportunity to interview him and the night before the interview we my friend Jeff and I met him at this event and we said sir were both we're both big fans of yours were both at Berkeley were both writing our theses our undergraduate thesis on your poetry could we possibly interview you tonight and he said no what about tomorrow and he said sure as long as you can give me a ride from Palo Alto to San Francisco okay sure I did it so long story but what he said at that moment he said pick me up tomorrow morning at 9:00 at the hotel over there or whatever it was and make sure you don't ask me a question that anybody has asked me before okay so and the dude had been interviewed a lot of times I mean there are books upon books upon books and and magazine articles and everything Paris review New Yorker everywhere right so Jeff and I were like up all night you know reviewing everything that we've researched about him to make sure that we're not going over old ground it was a really really important lesson and in the end we did I mean we were asking him about stuff that really was new for for him and it worked really well this is Merle Johnson many of you have heard her before if you've ever listened to a city club broadcast because she asks a question and almost well just yeah I would say 80% of the Friday forums that we host that are actually that are broadcast and this is a picture of her asking a question this just last month January 9th when Tim McGinty our County prosecutor was speaking and I can't recite the entire question that she asked because it was so perfect she recited all of the facts about the Tamir rice death and Timothy Loman that patrolman who shot Tim who shot Tamir rice and she recited the facts dispassionately and completely factually and then she said you know a pointed way will Officer Lohmann be indicted and prosecutor McGinty he spent you know a good five or six minutes going over a rehearsed answer that he had but the point is is that her question she had marshaled all of the facts together for that question and so like the lesson with Ginsburg the lesson with Morrell Johnson is to be informed don't ask questions of people especially this is in the case when you're interviewing celebrity type people are big people who have who have spoken about things don't ask them questions that they've already answered elsewhere know your subject to the extent that you can now I know a lot of you know who this is stuart scott died in November he was an amazing amazing sportscaster broadcaster for ESPN and in this in this moment is a still that I grabbed off of a YouTube video this guy on the on the right and on your right yeah it's my right to write it's over there at anyway the guy on the right is interviewing someone of these like red carpet interviews of Stuart Scott is walking down and say hey can I get your attention and and and Stuart Scott comes over very generous for this time and this guy takes about a minute to ask him he's like hey so I was just wondering you know Stuart Scott great you know like great amazing career and I was wondering if you have any advice for young upcoming reporters like myself and also how did you get where you are and and then he paused stopped and Stuart Scott said right there you just asked me two questions asked one don't ask two questions and then he went on he said and be simple you don't have to use a lot of words to show people how much you know just ask a simple question sometimes the best question is why the simplest question there is and he's right you don't have to use these long questions with with all sorts of things to show how much you know sometimes the most important thing is to just be as simple as you can be which is that one number seven so to review for one moment if I may so number seven is be simple I'm gonna just start at the beginning number one was be unafraid to be curious three do you remember what number three was oh come on come on what go yes try the obvious question and then that where number four was words matter number five strive for empathy number six be in form number seven be simple and then I said that I was going to share with you my favorite question my favorite question which ultimately was really the question that I asked Ishmael Beah uh who is it what's that like for you or what was that like for you and that comes from that's not like the the snarky question like hey how's that going for you it's the the authentic sincere question what's that like for you because I don't know I didn't experience it and I think that's a very important question a question we should ask one another quite a lot there's one last thing though to say and that when you are you are asking questions of somebody there it's a gift their answer is a gift and when they're giving that gift of you to you of your experience and and their experience and their time it's very important to be gracious all of you have given so much to all of us today your time and your attention and I hear outside in the lobby your questions as well so I want to just say to all of you thank you very much

23 Replies to “The Art Of Asking Questions | Dan Moulthrop | TEDxSHHS

  1. The Art of Asking Questions | Dan Moulthrop:

    1.) Be Unafraid to ask questions
    2.) Be Curious about an individual's experiences
    3.) Try the Obvious Question as it can be the most important
    4.) Words Matter to spark feelings in the conversation
    5.) Strive for Empathy to understand experiences
    6.) Be Informed on who you are interviewing
    7.) Be Simple and ask "why?"
    8.) Be Gracious for them giving you their time

  2. I like this presentation- straight to the point, clear and accessible (not the typical Ted-pretense) , however, I like to argue that "be informed" kills the inquisitive nature and curiosity. I understand that it related to interviews and avoiding the "obvious", but in general an open mind, a degree of ignorance keeps questioning alive (and our minds too!)

  3. You can see Dan is used to ask questions. Speaking without an interlocutor is really challenging for him. I feel you! Very good content.

  4. I loved that book. “Bloods” RIP. I loved Studs.

    Thank you so much.

    Google: Judi Grace Storycorps ( Wisdom of the elder)

  5. Curiosity and the Art Of Asking Questions — Dan Moulthrop

    "You cannot make a friend, you can only be a friend." — Roy Montero

  6. 1 Be unafraid
    2 Be curious
    3 Try the obvious question
    4 Words matter
    5 Strive for empathy
    6 Be informed
    7 Be simple
    8 Be curious

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