One benefit of coming from a journalism (and liberal arts!) background is that you're expected to ask dumb questions. People tend to presume that you know next to nothing about them, about their company, and sometimes even about business in general. I don't take it personally.
What they don't always realize is that asking dumb, a.k.a. basic, questions allows you to quickly understand the fundamentals of their business. In fact, starting with the basics and getting people to explain the core elements of what they do and why, is the first step to asking really insightful questions.
Once you understand their core business issues and processes, it's easier to see when an initiative or a program or even something happening on the factory floor doesn't fit or connect with what they say they're all about. You know you've identified something worth exploring and possibly developing into a story element that could be interesting to customers when the response begins, "That's a really good question…."
Early the other morning when I was reading instead of sleeping I was reminded of the value of asking dumb questions by Patrick Lencioni in his most recent business fable, Getting Naked. The book is about overcoming common business fears that can sabotage client loyalty. Because it reinforces a position of honesty and vulnerability, asking dumb questions is one of the practices that he explicitly recommends for overcoming the fear of being embarrassed and building loyalty.
In a consulting capacity asking basic questions about something in a budget or a business plan that doesn't make sense to an outside observer might only reveal your ignorance most of the time. But the few times that your questions spotlight real issues and potential pitfalls, Lencioni argues, is what clients will remember and appreciate.
Whether you're developing a case study, gathering primary research, or conducting an interview, ask the dumb questions and try not to care too much about revealing what you don't know. Dumb questions force everyone—especially subject-matter experts immersed in the arcane jargon of their specialties—to explain what they mean in everyday words that everyone can follow. The end product that you create will be better because the key points will be more insightful and it will be easier for your target audience to understand.
Have you asked any dumb questions lately and been rewarded or surprised by the response?