Great Questions Can Lead to Extraordinary Answers

"I will tell you something about stories....They aren't just entertainment...They are all we fight off illness and death. You don't have anything if you don't have the stories." --Leslie Marmon Silko, epigraph to Ceremony (1977) 

Storytelling has been the age old method of communication and the passing of oral histories. These stories may even take the form of chants, poems, or songs that convey the values, feelings, and meanings of a group or person.

Take the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare” that we hear in childhood, for example. The story depicts a race between two different animals, but captures some of the deeper meanings and values of our own culture. The story teaches the listener to value persistence and perseverance, to not judge the abilities of others, and to avoid having inflated egos about our skills. These life lessons are embedded in a popular story that gets passed from generation to generation, but also perpetuates morals and values at a deeper level.

Stories are ways to communicate and perpetuate ideas. The ideas and modes of communication vary greatly from one culture to another, and serve as tools to preserve culture.

Sure, you can recount many stories from your childhood about giant beanstalks or porridge eating bears. But when was the last time you told a story? When have you communicated your life experiences through a string of sentences?


StoryCorps ( is a nonprofit organization that strives to give voice to anyone wishing to tell their story.  Anyone can use their services and facilities to record, share and preserve their personal life story. In fact, since 2003, over 90,000 people have been interviewed and archived in the Library of Congress.

Why do they do this? According to StoryCorps:

We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, strengthen and build the connections between people, teach the value of listening, and weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that every life matters. At the same time, we will create an invaluable archive of American voices and wisdom for future generations. 

As a pioneering project in the tradition of oral history in the U.S., StoryCorps can teach us a thing or two about the art and science of interviewing and garnering momentous life stories. Often, participants get recorded having conversations with family members or loved ones. In this way, their dialogue tells the story of their lives together.

As any data collector knows, sometimes it's difficult to get a good conversation going. Sometimes it's hard to get people to open up.  That's where a good question to incite conversation can be invaluable.

StoryCorps has developed a list of opening questions to get interesting conversations going. Here are some that intrigued us:

Who has been the most important person in your life? Can you tell me about him or her? What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest? Who has been the biggest influence on your life? What lessons did that person teach you? Who has been the kindest to you in your life? What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in life? What is your earliest memory? What are the funniest or most embarrassing stories your family tells about you? If you could hold on to just one memory from your life forever, what would that be? If this was to be our very last conversation, what words of wisdom would you want to pass on to me? What are you proudest of in your life? When in life have you felt most alone? What are your hopes and dreams for what the future holds for your children? How has your life been different than what you’d imagined? How would you like to be remembered? Do you have any regrets? What does your future hold? Is there any message you want to give or anything you would want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren if they were listening to this?

Conversation starters can also be tailored to the specific context or relationship of the participants interviewed. Check out StoryCorps' website for a comprehensive list of questions by topic. For example, you can sort through questions targeted at “parents” or “friends or colleagues,” or you may peruse the questions they recommend under such categories as “school,” “love & relationships,” “religion,” or “growing up” among many others.

We can all benefit from becoming more intuitive listeners and conversation starters. Even in our everyday lives, the ability to get someone to tell their story can be illuminating and is rewarding for everyone.