A FAQ About Frequently Asked Questions

1. What’s a FAQ?

A list of questions with answers written in English are a great way to drive clear thinking on all the stuff that surround the central idea presented in a narrative. This ‘stuff’ includes things like strategy, execution, technology, business, and resources.

The main text of any narrative should be so clearly written that FAQs are unnecessary. To accomplish this, make a list of ten questions a reader might ask. Answer them. Then determine if those answers should be integrated into the main text or handled verbally in the review meeting. Put the answers that don’t belong in the document but might be needed during the meeting (verbally) in a back-pocket appendix. Repeat. By doing this, the author is forced to do the critical thinking to generate more questions and answers.

As the author does this, she or he will find questions that simply can’t be answered cleanly in the main document or are too critical to leave for the back-pocket appendix. These become FAQs in the FAQ section of the narrative.

2. Where should FAQs appear in a document? 

FAQs should generally come at the end of the document, after the prose. 

3. Should FAQs be numbered? 

Yes, you should number them. Numbering FAQs makes it easy for readers to call out which FAQ they want to make a point about. If there are multiple sections of FAQs in a document (e.g., a Customer FAQ and an Internal FAQ), make sure the numbering is continuous across all sections. This way readers can precisely call out a specific question. (The FAQs in this wiki would be numbered if confluence made it easy to do so. It doesn’t).

4. How many questions can be asked and answered in each FAQ? What if the question is complicated? 

Every FAQ should be comprised of a single question with a direct answer to that question (and only that question). Ask and answer only one question at a time. For example, the question I’m answering right now is a horrible example (intentionally), because it asks two questions. The second question (what if the question is complicated) makes writing a simple answer impossible. Figure out how to simplify the questions so there’s only one question, or just make two FAQs. 

5. Is a FAQ a required element of a narrative? 

A perfect six-page narrative would answer all the readers’ questions in the main body prose. However, often there are aspects where the FAQ format is the only way to simply and clearly answer a question. 

In fact, over-using FAQs can lead to sloppy writing, which results in less clear thinking. 

Some narrative forms (e.g., Working-Backwards (WB) narratives) have a set of required FAQs. 

6. What’s the trick for identifying good FAQs?  

Here are a few tips for identifying good FAQs: 

Seek the truth: Ask yourself what questions about the topic would you least like to answer verbally. Anything you come up with is likely a good candidate for a FAQ. 

Imagine the most hostile (or rude) thing a reader might ask. A classic is “Why are we wasting time on this idea?” 

Consider the obvious or negative cases. For example, if your narrative describes a new product and target customer segment, a FAQ might be “What customer segments will this product NOT be attractive to?” 

Sometimes there is a set of standard FAQs that every narrative of a type (e.g. a WB narrative) must answer (e.g. “What geographies will this product be launched in?”) 

7. What tips will help keep the questions simple? 

Less is more. The fewer words in your question, the better. Long questions are hard to parse and read. 

Ask the question. Seriously. If you find you are having trouble phrasing the question simply, find another human and verbally ask them the question. Often this will cause you simplify how you ask it.  

8. Is there a trick to answering only one question at a time? 

The trick is to only ask one question at a time (I added this because I have found it incredibly common for writers to stumble on this obvious point). 

Should questions and answers use proper English (grammar, spelling, and punctuation)? 

Yes. It is important both the question and answer use proper English to accurately and concisely answer the question. 

9. Does the order of questions in a FAQ matter? 

The order in which things are presented always indicates an order. We wouldn’t use the word ‘order’ if there wasn’t an ordering. More important things should be presented before less important things. Related questions should be kept together. If you have another heuristic that would determine the order for your FAQs then use it (but you better explain it explicitly and clearly to the reader). 

10. How many questions can be in a FAQ? 

There is no limit to the number of questions in a FAQ. A well written six-page narrative (with included FAQs) can be read by most careful readers in 20-30 minutes. For a 60-minute review meeting, this leaves 30 minutes for discussion. Six pages is the maximum, not the ideal. A one-page document that describes a simple solution to a complex problem clearly is vastly superior to a six-page document that does the same thing. 

Start with a goal of having no more than ten FAQs works. 

11. Can an entire narrative be structured as a FAQ? 

I’ve seen it work for narratives that explain a technique, like in a blog post describing how to write great FAQs. However, FAQs are not a great way to describe a concept such as a new customer experience or product plan. For those, actual narrative (words in sentences that make up paragraphs that flow from beginning to end) is far more effective primarily because writing actual prose is what forces the writer to really think clearly. 

12. When reading a FAQ, should I carefully read the questions? 

The author of the document wouldn’t have written the question if they didn’t think it was important. So, yes.

13. What’s a FAQAFAQ?

A FAQ about Frequently Asked Questions. Of course. Credit @ctpierson.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

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