February 15, 2011

The most powerful tool for getting reader feedback and generating civil conversation is the open-ended question. Ask readers, in print or online, what they think or how they feel, and you can inspire double or triple the number of usual responses.

I recently joined a brown bag conversation at the St. Petersburg Times about journalism and the uses of social networks. Ellyn Angelotti, one of Poynter’s experts on the topic, told a story about how she tripped down a staircase in high heels and hurt her ankle. She mentioned this on one of her social networks and heard from another woman who had done the same thing.

It’s hard not to notice how high the heels are on some women’s shoes these days. The ones Ellyn fell in have 4-inch heels. Some heels on ladies platform shoes run to 5 and 6 inches.

I am the father of three grown daughters who have been soccer players, dancers and fans of “Sex and the City,” so the issue of shoe fashion and foot health has been a subject of debate in my household for a long time.

I began to see the shape of a possible story idea. I decided to ask my Facebook friends about their experiences and opinions on high heels and women’s health. “Has the recent popularity of stiletto heels led to more accidents or foot problems for women?” My working hypothesis: the higher the heel, the greater the danger.

A simple Google search revealed tons of anecdotal and medical evidence on the unhealthy side effects of wearing high heels, which podiatrists define as anything over “two inches.” Some doctors suggested that all heels are inherently unhealthy for women, and that women should not become slaves of fashion. Women, they argued, should wear (gasp!) flats.

In two simple Facebook updates I posed more questions about women’s experiences with heels. Within a couple of hours, I received 36 messages highlighting a number of possible story angles.

On accidents: “I once fell down the stairs here at the Times in my new summer heels. Was so red-faced embarrassed… but of course still wore them again the next day, I’m sure. Wearing them today, in fact.”

On long term consequences: “I loved high heels and wore them practically all the time from my teens through my 40s, the higher the better. Result in my 50s: shortened Achilles tendons, hammertoes and arthritis in my ankles. I can’t wear very high heels anymore and usually wear flats, but today I have on a pair of 2-inch kitten heel Steve Maddens.”

On the cultural influence of fashion: I would say I love about 50 percent of these styles, the ones that look like they are part of a costume not so much. The classic pump and peep toe, very much, and I love a strappy sandal. I don’t care for the ones that are confused: “Am I a shoe or am I a boot?”

On why some women prefer high heels: “They make women’s legs look good.” “You get a little muscle definition in the calves.” “I feel more feminine wearing them than wearing flats.” “When you are only 5’2″, the extra 4 inches make a difference.”

On how preferences change with age: “Well Roy, since you asked, these shoes are not my style any more…. As a 5’10” gal, I don’t wear heels much over 3 inches – and these look like 4-5″. Nowadays, mostly flats!! Although I always believed that heels made one’s calves look slim and legs longer!”

On the obvious influence of pornography: “Yes, these shoes are best worn by women in bed … or the kitchen counter … or on top of the washing machine … or …”

On the attitudes of men: “Years ago, a male coworker told me I should buy and wear stilettos. When I told him ‘no way’ — I prefer Converse high tops, sandals and boots. He informed me that he thought stilettos were sexy. … He wasn’t amused when I offered to try to find a pair in his size.”

On the stiletto heel as a weapon: “My daughter wore her heels out with me downtown one night. We were being seriously confronted. I said ‘No hesitation … if I ask for a shoe, hand it over! Pop them in eye if needed!’ Lesson learned.”

So is this journalism? I think it is. It feels like the beginning of the hunting and gathering stage of the writing process. It needs to be developed, checked out, focused and sorted out. But I’m impressed by how much potentially useful material I received after asking a question or two to a group of “friends,” most of whom I do not know in the actual world. Their testimony begins to orient me to a set of themes that might one day become a nut paragraph:

  • That a large percentage of women are willing to sacrifice their long-term health for the youthful benefits that fashion and sex-appeal bring.
  • That there may be a direct connection between heel length and physical injuries to the foot, knee and spine.
  • That a highly sexualized culture continues to turn fetish into fashion, and fashion into fetish.

I don’t have a focus for my story yet, but a set of quick exchanges on my Facebook page have provided possible sources, story angles, themes, tensions, links and leads. I’m on my way.

Think of all the potential stories that could be spun from the testimony on social networks. I checked Facebook the other day and encountered topic after topic that — with the help of a good question — could grow into something more. Here are some of the questions I came away with:

  • What’s the best piece of clothing you’ve ever purchased in a thrift store?
  • What reform would improve the quality of learning in your kid’s school?
  • Why do you think that of all the Wikipedia contributors, only 15 percent are women?
  • What is your favorite song performed by the cast of Glee?
  • People eat all kinds of critters, including ants and squirrels: What is the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?

To generate the most revealing and productive answers, the questions must avoid Yes/No choices. It is the open-ended question that most often provides what writers most need: details, anecdotes, stories, scenes, along with rich and interesting language.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of an occasional series on writing for Twitter and Facebook. Here are parts one, two and three.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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