Is This Headline Provocative? (The Trouble with Yes/No Questions)

January 27th, 2013

Not as provocative as it could be.

Yes-or-no questions are powerful in their place. But if you want to open up dialogue — in a blog headline or elsewhere — I suggest you ask open-ended questions instead.

Querying the Obvious

The subject has been in the back of my mind for a while, but it came to a head the other day when I encountered this headline on the Big Think blog:

Can We Reach the End of Knowledge?

My reflexive answer — reflexive because I’m certain it’s correct — is “No.” Human knowledge has been growing rapidly for millennia, and seems set to continue down that path. So, even though Big Think often publishes good posts, I would not have read this one at all, except that it annoyed me enough to write this post.

In this case, the headline isn’t even an accurate one, since the post talks about unifying theories, from Thales of Miletus through superstring theory. A more accurate question headline would have been something like “Can a Single Theory Explain Everything?”

The broader point is that I see too many yes-or-no headlines in the vein of “Do You Need New CRM Software?” or “Should Your Company Use Pinterest?” The headline writers are making it too easy to skip these articles for busy readers who believe that they already know the answer.

A Lesson from Therapy

Psychotherapists specialize at getting people to unfold their ideas, and one of their simplest but most effective techniques is to (often) avoid yes-or-no questions. The stereotypical one is “How did you feel about that?” — but the technique works.

If the therapist asked “Did that make you feel sad?,” you might simply say “Yes” and then stay mum. The answer is already delineated for you. But “How did that make you feel?” might elicit a better answer, something like “Maybe . . . well, sad, but . . . more confused than anything.” That answer would give the therapist and client much more to work with: What, specifically, was confusing? Was the sadness a product of the confusion, or did the sadness come first? And so on.

Open a Dialogue

So let’s reconsider the real and notional headlines highlighted above, but reframed so that they stimulate curiosity rather than shutting it down:

  • How Would We Reach the End of Knowledge?
  • How Could a Single Theory Explain Everything?
  • When Is It Time for New CRM Software?
  • Which Companies Should Use Pinterest?

These are just off the cuff, but you get the idea. Instead of offering a binary choice to the reader, you ask an open-ended question that automatically invites curiosity.

How does this idea work for you? What examples would you add?

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