How To Write An Effective Answer On Quora: Communications 101

I have answered a number of questions on Quora and I am generally pleased if a handful of people “vote up+ answer on Quora?”

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The Winklevoss Twins Strike Again

As highlighted in the movie The Social Network, the Winklevoss brothers are embroiled in a protracted lawsuit with Mark Zuckerberg, Founder of Facebook. They claim that Mr. Zuckerberg “stole” their idea of creating a social network for the Harvard student community. The related question was: What should the Winklevoss twins have done to protect their idea?” My corresponding response is shown below.

John Greathouse, Entrepreneur, Investor, Professor and Freshman In The School Of Life
348 votes by <redacted>  

Can you identify this image?

How about this one?


The first one is Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney’s first hit character. After some initial success with Oswald, Universal Studios (who owned Oswald’s copyright) severed its relationship with Walt Disney, hired the majority of his creative team and began creating Oswald cartoons. Although an additional 140 Oswald episodes were produced over the next 14 years, none of them was nearly as successful as the first 26 installments, which were developed under Walt Disney’s tutelage.

As shown in the second picture, Walt dusted himself off, shortened Oswald’s ears so he looked like a mouse, and went on to kick Oswald’s ass. 

Universal thought the key was Oswald (the idea), whereas Disney knew the key was in the execution of the cartoon.

I write a bit more about how entrepreneurs can protect their ideas here: Spilling The Beans

So What?

I was shocked that my pedestrian answer was so well received. Upon reflection, I realized that I leveraged many of the tactics routinely used by advertisers, politicians and other professional communicators to engage their audiences, including:

Question Within A Question – Numerous ads lead off with a question, as do professional speakers, in an attempt to connect with their audience at the outset. I did not do this deliberately – my use of this technique was happenstance. Even so, by asking readers, “Do you know who this is?” they were apparently intrigued enough to ponder the figure for a moment. After investing a few seconds of psychological energy attempting to recognize the character, many readers were willing to read the rest of my response in order to learn the figure’s identity.

Pictures – I used two pictures, so I suppose they were worth two thousand words. Advertisers have long known that images cause a reader to hover their gaze, as eye candy is generally more appealing than text.

Deeper Meaning – Rather than directly answering the question, I offered an esoteric response, which clarified that the Winkelvoss brothers created nothing of value to “protect.” Listing a variety of bread-and-butter IP protection tactics would not have been as compelling.

Analogy – As readers of this blog know, I enjoy drawing connections between seemingly disparate people, historical events and pop culture minutia because it is entertaining and can facilitate learning. The analogy of a cartoon character’s “worth” is an interesting way to point out the inherent lack of value in the “idea” of a Harvard-based social network.

Brevity – My Quora responses are usually brief, primarily because I am a bit lazy. In this particular instance, I was tired and about to sign off for the night. My fatigue worked to my advantage, as shorter entries are less daunting. I am sure that some of the lengthy, text-heavy responses on Quora are valuable, but I would not know as I generally skip them. As such, eschew verbosity.

Simple – Avoid words such as eschew and verbosity! As described in Buzz Kill, many college-educated professionals tend to write at a level that is uncomfortable for most people (including college graduates) to read. When writing anything that you want people to effortlessly internalize, use simple words and avoid industry jargon.

As I said at the outset, all of these insights are essentially common sense. In addition, there are obviously other factors which dictate an answer’s relative popularity.  An interesting, topical question will obviously generate more views and thus the associated answers will have a higher probability of receiving votes. Timing and luck also play a role. Even so, it remains worthwhile to examine the components of an effective Quora answer, as the lessons learned are applicable any time entrepreneurs communicate in writing.

Future of Quora?

I encourage emerging entrepreneurs to utilize Quora. Post sincere questions and provide authentic answers, rather than gaming the system . An artificial, forced approach will eventually backfire, as online crowds nearly always ferret out bad actors and punish them for attempting to distort the system.

Thus, I am not suggesting that you emulate the characteristics cited above in an effort to generate votes for your answers. Rather, I am reinforcing the fact that entrepreneurs are always well served to communicate from a position of authenticity. Combine sincerity with pictures and simple language and your message will likely be well received – leave the arcane jargon to the folks at Big Dumb Companies. If your Quora responses become formulaic, not only will your social status suffer, but so will the entire Quora ecosystem.

John Greathouse has held a number of senior executive positions with successful startups during the past fifteen years, spearheading transactions which generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Copyright © 2007-11 by J. Meredith Publishing. All rights reserved.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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