One of the Best Sportscasters Ever, on How to Ask Great Questions

November 20, 2017

Dan Patrick is one the great interviewers of our time. Here's his lesson on how to ask great questions.

Here’s a question few have asked – what if I asked better questions?

You'd be a better communicator, a more effective salesperson, a better interviewer. Certainly, a better leader, a more effective coach. Even personally, asking better questions will make you a better spouse, friend and parent.

And yet, have you ever learned how to ask a great question? Have you spent any time learning how to pose a question in a way that gets you to the truth, while also bringing you closer to the person?

Probably not. Well, you’re about to.

For answers, we looked to Dan Patrick, a man possessing one of the most legendary careers in sportscasting history. It took off when he formed half of the greatest SportsCenter duo ever in the 1990s and continues to this day as the voice of one of the most popular radio shows in America, co-host of one of the most popular TV shows in America and now the man behind the Dan Patrick School of Sportscasting at Full Sail University.

Patrick’s greatest strength that led him to all that success? He’s one of the best interviewers on the planet – which really comes down to asking great questions.

So, what’s the secret to asking great questions?

It’s comes down to a mindset, Patrick said. And that’s knowing that asking a great question is about the other person, not you.

“Great interviews are ones where you remember the answers, not the questions,” Patrick said.

“We are so insecure, we want to insert ourselves into each question,” he added. “Nobody wants to ask a short question because they think that makes them look unknowledgeable. But the truth is, by removing yourself and focusing on the other person, you get to know and understand them.”

How to ask great questions

Patrick said he took a five-day, eight-hour-a-day course in his early days at ESPN to learn how to ask great questions. In that course, he learned a few principles on how to ask great questions that he’s followed throughout his career.

Those principles are:

  • Short is better than long.

Generally, the shorter the question, the better. Because longer questions are often long because you are putting yourself into the question, Patrick said.

A common reason for a long question is Patrick’s biggest pet peeve, the ask-answer-ask. Here’s where you ask a question, answer it and then ask it again – an incredibly common habit we do unconsciously, when again we put ourselves into the question.

An example of the ask-answer-ask: “Jim, I saw some data was missing in that report (the ask). I know you are dependent on operations for that, and they have been under-resourced (the answer). But why was that data missing (the ask, again)?”

This often leads to the person agreeing with the answer you gave in your own question, instead of them giving their version of the truth. To correct the problem, you need to understand their version of the truth, not your version of what you think their version of the truth is.

A better question: “Jim, why was some of the data missing in the report?”

Short, much more direct and gives the person the chance to explain their version of the truth.

  • Ask open-ended questions, not closed-ended ones.

Advice you probably heard before, but one many people don’t follow. So many times, we ask closed-ended questions that lead to a yes or a no, which provides no insight behind that yes or no.

Patrick gave an example of a college quarterback he recently interviewed, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield. Patrick didn't ask, “Baker, did you consider leaving Oklahoma your senior year and going to the NFL?”, which would have led to a yes or a no and little else. Instead, Patrick asked, “Baker, how close did you come to leaving Oklahoma last year for the NFL?”, which leads to a much more insightful answer.

  • Most importantly of all, listen.

While Patrick will research a person before interviewing them, he won’t script out questions ahead of time (at most, he’ll list a few topics he’ll want to cover). The reason is he feels it makes him too robotic and the discussion becomes too mechanical.

Instead, he prefers asking open-ended questions and asking follow-up questions based off what they say – which comes down to actively listening.

“I always tell people to listen,” Patrick said. “Really listen to what they are saying. It’s amazing what people will say, even when they aren’t trying to say anything.”

From their answer, Patrick can then follow up on whatever stands out. The result is a much more engaging, enlightening conversation.

How this applies to your work

Communication is cited as the biggest reason projects fail, the biggest reason employees don’t like their boss, one of the biggest reasons sales fall through and even the biggest struggle people have with their partners. But communication is a broad term – what does it really mean?

Well, there are a few aspects to being a really good communicator. One of the biggest is the ability to ask good questions that get to the truth, while forming a stronger relationship with the person.

That, as Patrick eloquently described, comes down to taking yourself out of a question-and-answer session. Instead, it means asking short, clear questions and then actively listening to what the person has to say, so you truly understand their version of the truth.

Patrick has followed this method on his way to building one of the greatest careers in sportscasting history. You can use it to become a far more effective professional, leader and person.

*Image from The Dan Patrick Show

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