Career Success

Everwise Answers: Nailing the Question

By Mike BergelsonMarch 12, 2014

One of the secrets to getting the help you need (in almost any situation) is knowing who and how to ask for it.

We launched Everwise Answers to help solve the first part – we connect folks with work- and career-related questions with great mentors who provide timely, relevant answers.

To get the most out of your Answers experience, though, you should spend a bit of time thinking about how you ask for help. This post provides some simple tips for framing your question.

1. Context

Most good stories start off with a healthy dose of scene-setting. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. And so on.
The goal, of course, is to bring the reader up to speed with the context of the situation. Key elements of context include:

  • Background – what events have occurred that are relevant to the current situation? Is there a predisposition against trying something because, say, it’s been attempted unsuccessfully in the past?
  • Location – where is this taking place? This can matter a lot; situations might be handled quite differently in San Francisco and Hyderabad.
  • Major players – who are the actors that directly or indirectly have a role in this story? How senior are they? What are their hot buttons? What’s your relationship to them?
  • Politics – what are the political forces at work? How do decisions really get made?

Example 1: Not Enough Context

Here’s an example of a question that doesn’t provide nearly enough information for the mentor. When you read it, lots of questions come to mind, right?

I have a an opportunity to present a project readout at my boss’s staff meeting next week. I’d like to be sure I do my homework to make the most of this opportuniy. Help!

Example 2: Lots of Context

This example, on the other hand, gives lots of really rich information. As you start reading, you’re able to paint a picture in your head of the scene. You can even start to imagine what the office looks like, what Sarah and Ted might be talking about at the water cooler, etc.

I work at a mid-sized manufacturing firm in central Ohio. I manage a small team of product designers and my boss has asked us to recommend one new product that we should bring to market next year. The people in the room will be Ted, a by-the-book engineer, Sarah, a marketing veteran who tends to trust her instincts over empirical evidence…

See how much easier it would be to help in the second example?

2. Specificity

The specificity of your question is very important. For example, is the question specific enough that a mentor can respond with practical, clear-cut, followable advice? At the same time, is it broad enough that it’s relevant to a large percentage of readers? Finally, will it be possible for us to find a mentor who can answer it?

Example 1: Not Specific Enough

We’re big fans of Office Hours by Levo League. In a recent episode, though, one community member asked “How can I become a successful woman? I am a software developer.”

Despite the experience and credentials of the Office Hours guest, this is a very difficult question to answer. Without more context, the advice that would likely be levied would have to be very high level, almost to the point of being cliche. For example, a reasonable response might be: “Well, I feel that hard work, mentorship and curiosity are the three keys to success.” The expert is hamstrung by not having enough information to provide really meaningful feedback.

In fact, we’ve found that our response rates from mentors are considerably higher for cases that have more specific information. We attribute this to a few reasons:

  • The mentors can better gauge whether they’re qualified to respond
  • They can give more meaningful responses
  • The mentor is more interested in helping when they feel the protégé has clearly put effort into the process.

A more specific question could be: “Growing up, my parents always wanted me to be a professional – it seemed like I’d be a failure if I didn’t become a doctor or lawyer. In college, I found that I loved math classes and, on a whim, took a computer science class. I fell in love with coding and now find myself in an entry level software engineering position at a startup. I want to make my parents proud and live up to my full potential but I really love the work I’m doing now. How can I think about next steps in my career to balance the tension here?”

Example 2: Too Specific

The pendulum can swing too far in the other direction, though. In some cases, we see questions that are actually too specific. For example, one question we recently saw featured a very detailed description of a problem that would only exist in very rare circumstances.

In this case, we had a hard time finding a mentor that would be able to speak to the question and felt that there wouldn’t be too many other folks out there who’d benefit from the advice our mentors would have provided.

In these cases, we might not take this case to our mentors as there would be other cases that would be more answerable by our mentors and broadly beneficial to our community.

3. Confidentiality

We do not share the names or contact information of our protégés. We do, however, share their questions.

It’s important that your questions have enough context and specificity (as we’ve mentioned) but that they not make obvious who you are (unless you don’t care about this).

Obviously you can simply change the names of the people involved. In some cases, though, you might need to alter some other details. A good test is whether one of your co-workers would recognize the question as yours if they read it. If so, it’s probably got too many details.

That’s about it. We realize there’s a lot to think about.

If you’re worried at all about getting it right, don’t be. We’ll help you through the process. We’ll offer tips on how to tweak your question so you get the most of your experience with Everwise Answers.

Topics: Everwise Answers

Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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