Holloway Editione1.1.1Updated September 14, 2022
You’re reading an excerpt of Stop Asking Questions, by Andrew Warner, a veteran podcast host of 2000+ episodes. The book explains how to lead high-impact interviews and learn anything from anyone. Master the craft of interviewing with this complete digital package. Purchase now for lifetime access to the book and extensive audio and video resources.
Even if you listened to each of my 2,000-plus interviews, you would probably miss my best question. That’s because it’s my shortest question. Ironically, it’s also a question I stole from Charlie Rose.
Rose’s iconic interview show lasted for a quarter century on PBS. But critics initially hated it because he asked questions that were longer than his guests’ answers. It became so bad that Rose’s long-windedness was parodied on Saturday Night Live. In the skit, Rose (played by Jeff Richards) interviewed Donald Rumsfeld (Darrell Hammond) and droned on for so long that Rumsfeld erupted, “I think you just spent ten minutes asking me a question, but I have no idea what it is!” Finally, Rumsfeld walked off as Rose continued to struggle to explain what he’s trying to ask.
I totally relate to Rose. There’s so much I’m trying to cram into each question. I want people to go deeper and also know that I’m giving them a safe space to do it. I want to understand their motivation and tell them why I care. Sometimes I just get lost in my own sentences and can’t find a way out.
But Rose kept improving. By the time I started interviewing, he was so smooth that everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Bill Gates appeared on his show. Business leaders paid him more than $50K to come to their corporate events and interview them onstage. They weren’t paying for Charlie Rose per se, but for his ability to help them express themselves better than they could on their own.
As I studied his style, I noticed that he repeatedly asked one simple question: “Because?”
Before I explain why this question works, I have to show you an example of how I used that question in an interview I did with John Doherty, founder of Credo, a platform for hiring marketers.
Andrew: Your company was called HireGun?
John: Yup. Yup. So we rebranded. Well, yeah, so this is—
Andrew (interrupting): Because?
John: We rebranded on January 16 because we launched on Product Hunt, and two weeks later, we landed in Virginia, where I’m from, for Thanksgiving. And I pulled my email, and I ha[d] a cease and desist letter in my email.
It’s like 6:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Eve, and I had a cease and desist letter basically saying, “You’re infringing on our copyright. You need to give us your website, everything, now!”
John went on to tell the story of how he pushed back on the attacking company and saved his business.
The beauty of the one-word question “because?” is that it acknowledges that I heard what was said before and shows that I care about it so much that I want to understand the reason behind it.
It’s elegantly simple. It’s so short that I can slip it into an interviewee’s long-winded monologue virtually unnoticed. They don’t even realize I’m redirecting them towards a deeper discussion. If you think about the times you’ve used the word “because,” you’ll see that you often use it to transition from what you did to why you did it. For example, “I started interviewing because I wanted to learn how to build a successful company.”
And that’s my goal in every conversation: To go deeper, to understand why someone did what they did. To understand who they are. No other word in the English language spurs such a depth of understanding as “because.”
Over the years, I’ve been known to host events called Scotch Night at my office, where I invite a few Mixergy listeners to join me for a drink and conversation. I remember one particular evening well. Sitting on tall chairs around a long table, few paid attention to the variety of Scotch bottles I put out. It was all about the conversation. Each founder was eager to hear what was working at other companies, so the group was boisterous.
After an hour, a founder that the group called “College” (because he was still in school and not old enough to drink) asked, “Andrew, do you ever have a guest who won’t say anything about their financials? How do you get them to be so open?” Everyone quieted down. As information hunters, it was something they also wanted to learn.