Full Circle Communications
April 2010
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past issues
Scan past issues on such topics as design tips for writers and speechwriting.

ease in writing?
"Ease in writing" comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, the British poet:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.

Note he (and I) didn't say "easy writing." But just as dance lessons can help get your around the floor more gracefully, the goal for this newsletter is to share a tip or two to improve your writing.

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Writing useful surveys
numeralsDid you receive a phone call or email survey to "ask your opinion" during the recent health care debate? Did some of the word choices in the questions or multiple-choice answers drive you nuts?

When done correctly, a survey "helps gather information for better decision-making," said Steve Raabe, president and research director of OpinionWorks.

But beware. The proliferation of online and phone surveys makes this information-gathering temptingly easy. As marketing expert Pat Lovenhart, Lovenhart Research & Consulting, warns, "it's worse to have a bad survey and get deceiving information than no survey at all. You might make bad decisions based on bad data."
Although the writing is only part of what makes or breaks a survey, "good writing is key," said Raabe. "You have to engage respondents and make it interesting and friendly."

Here are experts' suggestions for writing surveys that yield useful results:

  • Work backwards: "Before you write, you have to understand the business needs and what you want to do with the information you gather," said Lovenhart. "From there, drill down to specific questions. Is the information we're asking going to help us with the main objective?"
  • Let the purpose guide the questions: "Different types of questions lead you to the data you need to analyze and interpret," explained Stephen Rafe, Rapport Communications. (See below for his definitions of six common types of questions.)
  • Stay true to the purpose: Only include questions to elicit the information you need. "A common pitfall is there are questions hanging around the organization that are unrelated or irrelevant, but people want to tack them on, as long as you are doing a survey," said Lovenhart.  
  • Keep it simple: Once you are ready to write, "Rule #1 is to use everyday language," said Raabe. "Eliminate all jargon. Make sure it's easily understandable."
  • Lob a few softballs: That's how Raabe suggests easing respondents into the survey. "Proceed from the general to the specific," he explained. "Make sure one question moves to the next in a logical fashion." Lovenhart notes the balance between not being too complex at the beginning of a survey but not waiting too long to ask the most important questions.
  • Engagement determines length: Both Raabe and Lovenhart said that there is no "optimal" length for a survey. "It depends on the audience," said Raabe. "For example, an association that doesn't survey its members very often will find that the respondents will tolerate a longer survey."
  • Demographics at the end: Best practice is usually to put these sorts of questions (age, income level, etc.) at the end of the survey.
  • Always pre-test: You and your team may think the questions are clear, but how do you know for sure? Test the survey, whether conducted online, by phone, in person, or on paper, with people who are as similar to the target respondents as possible. Avoid common question pitfalls (see below). "Even the best researcher always finds things to change after pretesting a survey," said Lovenhart.

Know the lingo

You've answered, or written, all the types of questions explained below, perhaps without knowing what they're called. You may not be the person who decides which types to use, but you should know their "real" names. Here is how Stephen Rafe, Rapport Communications, defines them for his graduate students at Stratford University:
1. Dichotomous Questions: Especially useful in narrowing down your responses by asking for "yes" or "no." An obvious example might be a survey for men's aftershaves that begins with "Are you a male?"
2. Rank-Order Questions: You ask respondents to tell you the level of their preferences for a number of items. For example, a snack-foods manufacturer concerned with distribution might ask people to number their preferences for several named products. Also called "Ordinal Scale Questions," you might also write these when you want general information rather than numerical ratings. In such cases, you could arrange "clusters." For example, when asking people where they prefer to live, you might provide such categories as: "rural area," "suburban area," "urban area."
3. Multiple-Choice Questions: You ask respondents to select one of three or four options. Some surveys "scramble" the choices with other options in other questions to achieve greater accuracy by comparing and contrasting the responses. Or you might provide one "correct" choice and three "incorrect" choices or the opposite. You might also provide choices that enable you to couple two other choices or even choose "all of the above" or "none of the above."
4. Likert Scale Questions: Likert scales (also called "interval scales") help provide the level of importance of an item. A variation are "Multiple-Choice Matrix Questions" that provide the respondent with a group of questions that use the same ordinal scale, for example in restaurant surveys.
5. Semantic Differential-Scale Questions: You provide respondents with terminology (usually related to satisfaction or some other emotion) but ask them to use numbers that express their feelings. For example: "On a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being 'Disgusting' and 5 being 'Delightful,' how would you rate ___item________?"  
6. Open-Ended Questions: Perhaps the most challenging to administer, analyze, and interpret, these questions must be tightly worded so the responses can be sorted according to content, key points, and significance. As a general rule, they are positioned at the end of surveys to enable respondents to express additional comments and suggestions.

2007, Stephen C. Rafe. All rights reserved.

Pitfalls to avoid
Rafe also provided four common examples of questions to avoid:

1. Double-barreled or incorrectly compounded: The writer expects the respondent to provide one answer when the question asks for two ("Do you think we are effective in recruiting and retaining members?")

2. Vague: The question doesn't define what the questioner meant, so the respondent's answer is equally vague. Result: responses too subject to interpretation and thus not useful for analysis.

3. Non-actionable: For example, in a survey about specific faculty members, the question was asked, "Do you think that most people believe our school provides an excellent education?" Not relevant to the survey purpose, and nothing that the surveyor can do with the responses

4. Loaded or leading: "To what extent do you think gas-guzzling automobiles misuse our precious natural resources?" Which brings us back to some of those awful surveys about health care reform.

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