Simple Questions: Surprising Answers

The right interview questions can help you really get to know your clients. More than you might think.

In my work with career clients, I have found it useful to have a set of standard questions—a structured interview— that I ask most clients in our first session. My structured interview currently consists of 21 questions in two categories: Work-Related and Personal.

At the end of my Personal questions list is this simple question: “What has been a great movie or book that has impacted you? Why?

When I ask clients this question, I learn a lot about their values and motivations. Often, too, the characters in books and movies behave in a way that’s consistent with my clients’ preferences or philosophy of life.

Here’s a small sampling of client answers:*

Atlas Shrugged

The Bible

Man’s Search for Meaning

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

American Beauty

The Lord of the Rings

Saving Private Ryan

The Shawshank Redemption

Star Wars (Original, 1977)

As I’ve said, the answers can tell me a lot about clients’ values, motivation, preferences and philosophy of life. The power of this question also relates to story. Often the stories we’re attracted to in some way relate to our own struggles. Sometimes they suggest options we hadn’t considered.

By their nature, stories can also provide a kind of closure or resolution, which can be comforting when our own stories are incomplete—when they’re still being “composed” as our lives progress.

Where the Magic Happens: Digging Deeper into Client Responses

As you may know from your own experience interviewing clients, the magic often happens in the follow-up—what both you and the client learn from the client’s answers and your subsequent discussion.

Let’s consider a few examples from the list above. Man’s Search for Meaning, a book by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel, is all about the resilience of the human spirit under adversity. Discussing this book with a client can help them articulate and overcome their own obstacles, as well as shed light on their values, philosophy of life, and even spirituality.

The Shawshank Redemption brings hope in the face of adversity. Discussing it, and movies like it, can yield important insights about how clients view themselves and others, as well as bring to light a client’s experience of injustice.

Clients’ answers to this question can also reveal events or issues happening in their lives that might otherwise go unmentioned. For example, a client in his fifties who cited the movie American Beauty was having a mid-life crisis and helping a friend through his. I likely never would have discovered this had I not asked the question.

Finally, clients’ answers to this question can provide you with clues as to how they like to learn. For example, clients citing books may love to read, and that can help suggest options when assigning them homework.

Learn More About the Value of the Structured Interview

In Game Plan: An Insider’s Guide to Effective Career Assessment, I go deeper into my structured interview and how it can open up clients—and the career counselors and coaches who work with them—to new insights and opportunities.

I also explain how, when used properly, a structured interview gives you more control over your first session with clients and ensures you get useful information early on in the process.

The book includes the full 21 questions, as well as numerous examples of client answers. For example, in the client case studies, in a section called “Clues from the Structured Interview,” I show how answers to a few key questions offered major insights.

One of my structured interview questions asks clients what job duties or responsibilities were (or are) most or least favorite. A client who had been fired repeatedly from manager positions had an interesting answer:

His favorite duties? “Troubleshooting and engineering work”

His least favorite duties? “Supervising others and dealing with ‘people stuff’”

A major clue to why managing people didn’t suit him!

Questions about movies and books or favorite job duties may seem mundane on the surface. But the answers to these questions can lead to a rich array of insights which, when combined with formal assessment results and additional analysis, give hope and direction to clients.

*If you’d like to see a list of the other books and movies my clients have cited in their answers, contact me at and I’ll send you my complete list.

Game Plan: An Insider’s Guide to Effective Career Assessment, co-authored with writer and editor Liz Willis, was published in January 2022. You can read more about the book, including testimonials from career assessment professionals, at