Tips on Content and Wording of Surveys

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Q: I am the Communications Manager for a consulting company, and our employees are dispersed throughout the country at various client sites. Each year we distribute a communications program survey to all employees at our annual meeting as a way of measuring the effectiveness of our internal communications programs. My question is two-fold:

  1. What types of questions should I include in this survey to really measure value?
  2. And how can I word my questions to elicit the right responses?

I truly appreciate your expert advice!

Mary Yanocha, Communications Manager
PM Solutions

A: Dear Mary:

First, here are some general idea starters for a survey. Of course, they need to be tailored to your own specific communication program, your executives’ expectations and your employees’ needs:

  • Levels of interest and understanding about key messages
  • Current and preferred sources for each message topic
  • Access to various communication channels
  • Overall value of each channel
  • Ideal frequency of each channel
  • Current frequency of various face-to-face meetings
  • Effectiveness of communication skills for supervisors/managers and executives
  • Other more broad questions about information credibility, accuracy, timeliness, volume, etc.
  • Some highly focused “readership” type questions about a key channel or two.

As far as tips for wording your questions, whole books have been written about that! Here are some of the important keys:

  • If you will want to compare your results with those of other companies, you’ll need to use the exact wording of questions in the pool of questions from the database.
  • Make sure the wording will result in specific actions you can take.
  • After you draft your initial questions, pretend first that you received a highly favorable response, and then a highly negative one. Do you know enough about what actions to take to turn a negative response into a favorable one? For example, let’s say you ask people to agree/disagree with the following statement: “The employee newsletter should continue to be published once a month.” If they disagree, you don’t know whether to increase or decrease the frequency. It would be better to ask people to select their ideal frequency from a list you provide (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.).
  • Avoid words that can be interpreted differently. Obvious ones include words like bimonthly, which can mean twice a month or every other month. Other typical words or phrases that need to be defined when you use them include “senior management,” “your location” and any jargon or abbreviations.
  • Be sure questions ask about only a single item. For example, don’t ask if people think communication is open and honest in one question. It can be one but not the other, so people won’t know how to respond and you won’t know which problem to fix.
  • Avoid built-in assumptions in your questions.
  • If you use an agree/disagree format, use middle-ground adjectives in the question; for example “good” instead of “excellent” or “horrible.” That gives respondents more leeway in agreeing or disagreeing somewhat or strongly, so you’ll receive a more accurate reading of the range of perceptions.
  • Phrase questions in a way that prevents people without a legitimate, informed opinion from answering. For example, if you ask if communication has improved, worsened or stayed the same during the last 12 months, you need to include an option that says: “I haven’t been here 12 months.” Otherwise, people who have been hired recently would probably choose “stayed and same” and dilute the true results from those who have been here during the entire time period.
  • Obviously, use clear and simple phrasing. Do a reading grade level check on the survey and try to keep it between grades 8-10 (US system, which means 8 to 10 years of formal education required to understand the writing).

Finally, pretest your survey with a random selection of the types of respondents you’re likely to have. Ask them for which questions are difficult to understand or to answer, which questions are missing a response category they’d like to have available, etc.

Hope this helps!

Angela D. Sinickas

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