The trick to getting people to answer the difficult questions

Some interview questions are too difficult for people to answer.

I found this out recently while doing audio vox pops for the Tasmanian Writers Festival.

Being a Writers Festival, I thought a good question to ask would be:

“If you were to write the story of your life, what would be your story’s main theme and why?”

I knew it would be a hard question for people to answer, but I also knew that if someone was able to answer it, the tape would be gold.

But as expected, it stumped a lot of people:

“Um, I don’t know, sorry”.

I was about to give up on the question, but gave it one more go and by doing so,  I discovered a fabulous new interviewing trick.

I approached two girls who were lining up for the bar. When I asked one of the girls, Nicole, the question, she couldn't answer it. While I nodded my head in agreement that yes, it was a difficult question, her friend Sarah, jumped in:

SARAH: I think for you Nicole, it's success or proving yourself or something, that’s basically your main goal at the moment.


Surely then Sarah, who could easily answered the question about her friend Nicole, would be able to answer the same question about herself, right? No.

ME: What about yourself then Sarah, what would your story’s main theme be and why?

SARAH: Oh I don’t know

ME: [To Nicole] Do you know?

NICOLE: Sarah’s main theme? Um… Family.

SARAH: Yeah, it’s true. Family, that pretty much sums me up.

ME: Why is that?

SARAH: Because I’m crazy and I want to have babies!


ME: How is that going, do you have a partner?

SARAH: No, but I’m obsessed. I can’t look at babies. I just think my uterus is about to explode.

And that's the trick!

It’s easier to answer the tough questions when they're about someone else.

In practice: if you've got a tough question, ask the interviewees friends/family first. You could even do this before you interview the person. For example,

ME: What’s the most special thing about you?

THEM: I don’t know.

ME: Your son Tom said it was your ability not to judge people.

THEM: Yeah…. I suppose so, but I do judge people. One time I ……

Asking someone else the tough questions will take the pressure off the interviewee and act as a conversation starter

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It’s a nice little trick to have up your sleeve if you know you're going to be asking tough questions. Otherwise, try interviewing people in pairs.

What questions have you asked people that stumped people?