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The Deceptively Simple Type Of Question Every Interviewer Needs To Know

“Launching questions” are straightforward, open-ended, and 12 words or less. Here’s how to use them.

The Deceptively Simple Type Of Question Every Interviewer Needs To Know
[Photo: NASA/Sandra Joseph, Kevin O’Connell via Wikimedia Commons]

We all love to hear ourselves talk, and good interviewers can make a job applicant open up just by asking the right questions. But what makes a question good? Simple: When it’s easily understood. Too often, the questions recruiters and hiring managers ask are confusing–they use too many words, overwhelming the listener.

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Questions posed the right way can be comprehended quickly, letting listeners think carefully about their answers. You can actually see this happen; when people are asked compelling questions, they pause, think, and then respond. When they do, their answers are thorough, accurate, and satisfying for everyone involved in the conversation. And there’s one type of question that every job interviewer can ask in order to get responses like this–it’s simpler than you think.

How To Ask “Launching Questions”

“Launching questions” are provocative, open-ended questions that can be posed in 12 words or less. Their brevity ensures that they’re immediately understood, launching people into giving detailed answers. The goal of asking them is to create a conversational quid pro quo: The questioner wants to understand, and the respondent gets to be heard.

In fact, just about every ordinary response can be turned into a new launching question, which can help you quickly develop an even deeper understanding of the candidate. Here are three examples of launching questions you can use early on in the interview process, either during a phone screening or at the start of an in-person interview:

  • “Why us?” Motives are important. Knowing if your candidate is inspired by your company’s mission or just needs a job will help you pick the best people.
  • “Why now?” When a candidate is actively searching for a job, knowing what’s driving that decision is important. Is the candidate desperate to make a change, ready to leap at the first offer? Or is she happy and simply open to a new opportunity that could make her life better? Knowing what’s driving someone’s behavior is crucial for making the right hire.
  • “What type of job suits you best?” Too often, interviewers ask candidates about their “perfect” job, but that sets both questioner and answerer up for failure since jobs and companies are rarely perfect. Instead of asking about perfection, ask about personal fit.

Launching questions are particularly important for recruiters who are speaking with so-called “passive” candidates, people who aren’t actively searching for work. The challenge is to engage them in a meaningful conversation and get them interested in hearing more about a new opportunity.

For example, when someone says they aren’t seriously looking to change jobs, you could ask, “Under what circumstances would you consider something new?” If someone says they’re happy in their current role, ask, “What would make you happier?” Both examples get prospects thinking about the possibilities and offering input on what they care most about.

Launching Questions Help You Highlight Selling Points

Asking launching questions doesn’t just help you get to know prospective candidates, though–it also helps you sell the opening you’re trying to fill. And make no mistake: Hiring is a form of selling. The hope is that the best prospective buyers—top talent—choose you. During interviews, you walk a tightrope, balancing the need to sell the job with the need to confirm that the candidate is a good fit for it.

Virtually no one likes to be sold to. We’ve all been on the receiving end of a sales pitch, and it’s often an unpleasant experience. Salespeople usually default to the “tell, sell, and swell” method, explaining why their company is different, touting their product’s features and benefits, and swelling our egos with compliments. We’ve learned not to trust everything salespeople say.

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In job interviews, you’ve got to make way for the better salesperson to do the selling–and that’s the candidate, not you, the interviewer. Candidates always believe themselves but may or may not believe you as you talk up your company. If they’re going to buy into your opportunity, they’re the best-qualified salespeople to make that happen. Want candidates to believe your organization is the best choice? They’re the ones who should do the convincing. Will they remain committed to accepting a job now or in the future? Only if they tell themselves it’s the right idea.

Think of it as “collaborative selling”: The seller (you) guides the conversation while the buyer (the candidate) does the selling. You’re learning important details, and the candidate is selling herself on the opportunity.

Simple as they may seem, launching questions are the best way to get this collaboration under way and sustain it through the course of the interview. They can come in handy in every interview, including those on the phone, by videoconference, and the ones you conduct in-person. Launching questions are powerful levers capable of heavy lifting. Keep them short, simple, and open-ended, and they’ll elevate you and your organization in the eyes of job candidates, showing you care what they have to say.

You’ll draw out important details to inform your decision making–all the while letting the better salesperson sell themselves on the possibility of joining your team.


This article is adapted with permission from High Velocity Hiring: How to Hire Top Talent in an Instant by Scott Wintrip. All rights reserved. Published by McGraw-Hill Education.

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