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The Five W’s

by Randall Craig on February 21, 2006

Filed in: Blog, Make It Happen Tipsheet,

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During school, we learned about the five W’s as elements that should be used in a great story. But as managers, they serve an even more important purpose. These Five Words, Who, What, Where, When, and Why, along with others like “How”, are words that start questions. In particular, they start Open-ended questions.

“Did you have a good day?” is Closed; “What did you do today?” is Open. The Closed question can be answered with a one word answer: Yes, No, Good, or Bad. The Open question must be answered with a sentence. And sentences are what start productive conversations.

In the workplace, we often rely on Closed questions because they provide the information that we think that we need: “Is the new system finished yet?”. Using an Open-ended question (“How have people reacted to the new system?”) allows us to look behind the scenes and discover whether there are any issues lurking. It also lets our staff and colleagues express what is important to them – not just what is important to you.

Asking Open-ended questions also yields another benefit: it can encourage creativity and resourcefulness. How often have you said “It can’t be done” when approached with an idea that you don’t think has wings? What if you replaced this expression with “How could it be done?” The person making the suggestion may have already spent time considering the answer. Letting them answer the Open-ended question might provide a perspective that you hadn’t considered before. It also sends a more important message: innovation and new ideas will be considered. Open-ended questions suggest an open-minded manager.

This week’s action item: each time you ask a question, commit to using an Open-ended version – it’s easier than you think. To start, try rephrasing your question with Why or How. (Or maybe I should have asked, “How can you make a difference with the Five W’s?”)

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Randall Craig

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Randall has been advising on Web and Social Strategy since 1994 when he put the Toronto Star online, the Globe and Mail's GlobeInvestor/Globefund, several financial institutions, and about 100+ other major organizations. He is the author of seven books, including the recently released "Everything Guide to Starting an Online Business", and speaks across North America on Social Media and Web Strategy. More at and

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