Professor of Social Interaction Elizabeth Stokoe has spent twenty five years analyzing the way people talk, message, and interact with each other. Learn more about Liz and how she can help your business.
Like many startups and marketing teams, Typeform has been thinking about this question a lot. To help them, they transplanted me from Loughborough University to their office in Barcelona after seeing my TED Talk.
Whether you’re writing a survey or an email, how you ask a question can enhance the user’s experience—or get in the way of it. As they say at Typeform, “How you ask is everything.”
But being ‘conversational’ is not always the same as being ‘friendly.’ Both online and face-to-face, sometimes it’s better to shoot straight and cut the chatter.
Here’s how to make common online exchanges smoother—and get better responses.
How to ask for an email address
Asking for someone’s email address is an everyday, often automated question for most businesses. But if you want to build a healthy contact list, how you ask is key.
First, are they expecting to give their email, or are they doing you a favor by giving it to you? If the person wants your service, product, or information, then you’re entitled to ask.
In this case, there’s no need for small talk. Ask direct questions. Use punctuation to be conversational and connect sets of questions together like this:
But if you’re trying to capture a lead so you can send them your marketing, you’re less entitled to fill their inbox.
Still, no harm in asking—but do it after their main business has been completed. And phrase it to reflect the favor you’re asking:
It may seem like a tiny detail, but “willing” is a magic word. People are more likely to sit down and talk through a neighbour dispute when asked if they’re “willing” to do it—rather than if they’re “interested.”
Why? Because they want to sound like a good person who’s “willing” to listen. But marketers, don’t get too excited—it won’t always work. My research shows that “willing” mainly works after resistance to whatever is being asked, offered, or proposed.
Whether or not you decide to try out “willing,” always keep one principle in mind: recipient design. Who are you talking to? Think about what’s at stake for your audience, and build your request around that.
The Hustle’s email sign-up is a great example of this:
Pirate ships aren’t for everyone—the more specific the request, the more you narrow your audience. But if someone shares this sense of humor, they’ll be more likely to part with their email.
How to always get useful feedback
It’s a basic fact of question design that one at a time is best. This doesn’t just make things easier for the person answering—it also makes them more likely to answer the question you really want to ask.
But hang on, why wouldn’t they?
Think about a real conversation. People generally respond to the final thing they’ve heard. So when interviewers ask politicians long-winded multi-part questions, they give them an easy way to avoid any part of the question they’d rather not answer.
If you ask a question like, “Tell us about the history of your business and its key highlights,” your recipient has to decide which part of the question to focus on. And by the time they’re done with “key highlights,” they’ve probably forgotten the first bit.
Even simple questions can contain two parts:
The question above opens up two types of answer. “Comments” may invite criticism, “suggestions” may be more constructive. Do you want an evaluation, or advice?
Ask one, one-part question at a time to get the type of feedback you’re really after.
How to nudge people toward the response you want
It might sound strange to design a question that constrains possible responses, but we actually do this all the time. Think about the question above: “Do you have any comments or suggestions for the event?”
Conversation analysis shows that questions with the word “any” are likely to receive a “no” in response. And because “any” questions often appear at the end of a conversation, it’s even more appealing for people to say “no” so they can go about their day.
If you really want comments or suggestions, the trick is in the grammar.
What if you want to offer a range of responses, but ideally have people choose one of the options?
In spoken conversation, people are more likely to choose options placed at the end of a list—or the second option of two. But respondents who read a list of options are more likely to choose the first.
In the case above, the company probably prefers the customer to pick up their painting, rather than having to ship it. Switching the order of the response options could cut their delivery costs.
So don’t leave it up to chance. Think about the outcome you want, then tweak your language and question order to tilt them toward what you want to hear.
How to ask for sensitive information without offending
Segmenting people by demographic is a great marketing tactic. But asking people to categorize themselves should be handled with care—both in surveys and in real life.
So before you ask about gender, age, or ethnicity, ask yourself: do I really need that information? Am I reproducing stereotypes by asking? Could my range of response options cause offence?
Because even when you’re doing your best to be inclusive, language is dynamic and political—it’s easy to get it wrong.
One way to ask delicate questions is to embed them in a string of other questions. Conversation analysis has shown that starting a question with “and” normalizes or detoxifies it, by connecting it to the previous question.
This is because the and-preface implies an ordinary, conversational reason for asking.
Providing demographic information is sensitive for a lot of people, so ask yourself if it’s likely to matter to your recipients–and design accordingly.
How to sign off
All conversations have a beginning, middle, and end. But do your recipients know when theirs are about to end? If not, they’re likely to be left with some unanswered questions.
In real talk, closings take at least four turns:
“That’s lovely, thank you very much.”
It’s hard to replicate this very human element of conversation when closing an online form or checkout process. But there are still things you can do so people don’t feel like you’ve just hung up on them.
Phrases like, “Any other comments?” or “Finally, would you like to ask anything else?” signal that the interaction will be over soon. But even after an online exchange has ended, it’s common for people to be left wondering what happens next.
To reduce the chance of them having to go straight to your site’s FAQ page after the interaction has ended, be clear about the next steps they should expect. Seems simple, but it’s so often overlooked.
The one takeaway from all this?
The way you ask questions shows recipients the type of person, company, or organization you are. Remember: question design isn’t just a business decision, it’s how they’ll remember you.
You are the questions you ask.