I hope you find my writing and business tips and observations useful. My business and blog are dedicated to helping businesses communicate clearly and reach their potential. Read, subscribe to my newsletter, enjoy!Tash

Refer to older posts…

Blogging services

HCI chat


Consistent terminology

Do you know what a closed question is?

I’m sure I didn’t learn about open and closed questions until much later, but my children have been learning this in primary school. This is a good thing as it can help them communicate socially as well as within their school work.

Closed questions – elicits a simple response such as “do you like blue or green?” where a one word response answers the question.

Open (or open ended) questions – give scope for more detailed and complex responses such as “why is blue your favourite colour?” or “what do you like about that book?” which require longer answers and can lead to a discussion.

Have you ever heard questions referred to as thin and thick questions instead of open and closed?

The first time I knew of the thin/thick nomenclature was when I viewed some work my daughter had done at school. I know enough about open and closed questions to figure out what was meant by thin and thick so I could interpret the schoolwork very quickly. And I assumed the children had been taught thin/thick instead of open/closed.

Then I read the schoolwork in more detail.

Schoolwork with different terms in use = confusing!

The instructions swap between thick/thin and open/closed questions without any explanation that they are the same concept (and not even in the same order which makes it even harder to correlate the pairs of words). Given that this activity is obviously aimed at teaching children about open/closed questions, surely it would be better to use the same terminology for the one activity.

It’s one thing for me as a professional writer to read these instructions and follow them easily, but something else entirely for a seven year old who is grappling with what these terms mean and how to find examples of each type!

And my daughter said they had been taught about open/closed questions – she figured it out (and I think she did a good job devising relevant questions in the activity) but I’m sure many of her classmates would have struggled if they were left to do this activity just by reading the instructions.

The lesson?

Stay consistent!

If you start using one term (or set of terms) when writing, then continue using that term throughout.

Even if you explain there are alternatives, stick to one term in your content. For instance, if you are writing about saving money, you may write something like

Contributing to your savings can be done more or less frequently. Contributions, also known as deposits or account credits, will attract interest and thus increase your savings over time. When deciding how much to contribute, you may consider your income, expenses and lifestyle choices.

You may not be writing for children, and your audience may easily figure out your message, but why make it harder to read than necessary? Why risk them not understanding and/or disengaging in your content?

Being consistent makes your writing easier to read and understand, looks more professional and will probably help search engines recognise a keyword in your online writing.

Answer customer questions

Even the negative ones.

If a customer has a question, they want you to answer it – and preferably as soon as possible so they can move on to the next step.

answering questions leads to customers

Answer potential customer questions to get more customers

Look at your website, brochures, social media profiles and other written messages – do you answer customer questions?

Smaller documents can only answer a few questions, obviously, but make them important questions (like how to contact you for further answers!)

Scary questions

Some businesses are scared of people asking a certain question – or act that way anyway.

Why not stand out by being the brave business? It is honest and gives customers fewer things to worry about because you have answered their questions.

And it gives you a chance to make things more positive, too.

So a dentist website can include “will it hurt? Well, yes it might but we’ll warn you and do whatever we can to minimise it.”

Here are some more industry specific examples…

  •  personal trainers: ‘do I really have to work out in between visits?’ ‘Only if you want the best results!”
  • accountants: ‘am I going to have to dig out all my old receipts?’ ‘I’m afraid so – the more receipts we get, the more we may be able to get back for you at tax time!’
  • editors: ‘will you really point out all my spelling mistakes?’ ‘Yes, that’s what you’re paying us for – but we promise not to make you feel bad about any of them!’
  • online shops: ‘do you charge postage and delivery?’ ‘Yes we do. We decided to charge official postage rates rather than increase the prices of everything to cover delivery.’

Do you answer any potentially negative questions in your materials? How have clients responded to those answers?

If you want some ideas on what questions customers may silently being asking – and how to answer them nicely – then contact me soon so we can help your customers find what they need.

Poor surveys are time wasters…

I’m busy, you’re busy and I suspect even people (including Government employees) writing surveys are busy.

So why do people put up silly surveys and waste everyone’s time?

clock in waste paper bin

Throwing time away…

Late last week I was asked to fill in a survey Government-run gathering information to help small businesses – a worthy cause so I completed the survey.

But some of the questions were a waste of time – not only were they hard to answer, I doubt they will give meaningful results so it has wasted everyone’s time.

Poor survey question samples

Here are some of the worst questions I answered, with my comments to explain why I didn’t like these particular questions.

Q1 – is your website interactive? Can you edit it yourself (eg online forms, content)?
A1 – yes or no

What is the correct answer if my site is interactive but I can’t edit it, or if I can edit it but it isn’t interactive?

Q2 do you use a still or video camera for work purposes?
A2 – Yes – what do you use it for?

Um, for taking photos or videos? I wonder how many people gave that answer! I decided to be nice to them and answered ‘take photos for use in my blog’

 Q3. who is your local IT service company in a, b and c?

Personally I had no idea! And what did they mean by local anyway – same suburb, same city, same state?
The question perhaps makes more sense if you assume they want to know who I used for those services or maybe they were trying to ask ‘do you use a local IT service company for a, b or c’.

Q4. how do you get business advice and information?
A4 – rate each option in the following list {which includes trade magazines, state gov department website, dept of broadband, communication & digital economy}

The list did not include professional advice (accountant, coach, etc), online articles/blogs or government business info sites which were the first three things I thought of! Yet it included such specific things as a government department site and the dept of broadband, etc which I have never heard of!
When giving answers, it is important to review the list to ensure it covers enough breadth – or change the question to indicate it is a narrow aspect being researched.

Q5. do you or any of your staff telework? (work from home connecting to the business network and database)

How do I answer that – I work from a home office so I am nearly always connecting to the business from home but I don’t think it is really telework when the network is also at home!
Do they want me to include sub-contractors/suppliers as staff or keep ‘staff’ to mean employees?

Maybe this post will compensate for the wasted time as at least we can all learn what not to do in our next survey or feedback form!

My strong recommendation is to always get an outside person to read a survey when you think it is finished because they will spot errors in logic, assumptions and inconsistencies better than you can.

What are your survey stories? Have you found they are harder to write than they appear? Or maybe you’ve come across some time-wasting questions like these ones. I’d love to hear them – although it would be nice to think most surveys are well done!


Ensure your surveys give enough options

Earlier this week, I answered a brief survey from a Government body – correction, I tried to answer a brief survey but the questions stopped me.

For a series of items, you had the choice of yes (I want to get this) or no (I don’t want to get this).  And you had to answer yes at least one to have your survey accepted.

However, for three of the items I already have them. So my answer is neither yes nor no, leaving me in a quandary about finishing their survey.

I choose to answer no because I didn’t want duplicates but I wonder how much that has skewed their results? And how many other people in my position chose no?

When writing surveys and forms

It is really important to think about your questions from every angle to be sure people can complete your survey/form.

Making your questions easy to answer

I think it’s especially worth thinking about if you have made the answers black or white – can you be sure no one will want to answer grey?

exclude people if options are too few

Assuming only two currencies definitely excludes some people

If you’re asking for a gender, under 18/over 18 or in business/not in business, there is a clear either or response. However, as soon as you have a less concrete option, be careful to include that in your possible responses.

While ‘other’ or ‘unknown’ may seem weak answers, they do at least give people the option of completing your questions without getting stuck or making up answers.

And a ‘both’ or ‘all of the above’ answers give a lot more choice, too.


Getting lots of questions

Have you ever experienced a LOT of questions from your suppliers?

I aways lots of questions about new writing projects – less so for existing and long-term clients – and some people are amazed by that.  Usually amazed and appreciative, but amazed none the less.

Could you imagine going to a doctor or lawyer and not have them ask questions to clarify the issue and find the best solution? Would you trust a doctor who said hello and handed you a script?

As far as I am concerned, I like my suppliers to ask questions to show interest in the project (rather than the dollars) and to be sure they understand what I actually need.

As a writer, I don’t feel I can’t write good content if I don’t know much about the topic of the piece. I know I can’t write effective content if I don’t know who the target audience is or the purpose of the piece. So I ask lots of questions before I write or edit any content.

Although it make take you more time than you expected to hand over a project if the supplier asks many questions, it is usually worth it for the quality of the final result.

Some reasons to appreciate these questions are that the supplier:

  1. is interested in doing the project as well as they possibly can
  2. will clarify any parts of your instructions they don’t understand
  3. learns the purpose of the work and can tailor it to suit
  4. is able to make appropriate suggestions and recommendations
  5. has the knowledge to give a different perspective
  6. gets an understanding of you and your business as well as the specific project
  7. knows who to target the result at (if relevant)
  8. may notice other things you can benefit from (for example, when I read a client’s website to learn about them, I sometimes find a typing or logic error that I will point out so they can correct it)
  9. is being professional and showing attention to details which presumably will carry through into the project itself
  10. is gathering information from the best source rather than making assumptions or using less reliable sources

So be warned – if you ask me to write for you or help with a communications project, you will be asked a number of questions!

How about you – how have you reacted to suppliers asking questions in the past?

Do you respond differently to ‘dumb’ questions compared to a supplier gathering useful information?

Improving your surveys and questionnaires

Why do you run surveys or feedback questionnaires?

hand holding a pen over a form

By hand or online, make your survey/feedback questions work for your business.

Sometimes, when I read questions in surveys and other forms, I do wonder how important the final data is for the person behind the questions – do they run them for fun rather than as a valid business tool?

Here are two questions I was recently asked to answer – and some tips on how to avoid the same mistakes…

Give everyone a possible answer

“When will you purchase a new car?
within a  month
1 – 2 months
2 – … months
… – 24 months
never – I don’t purchase new cars”

As we purchased a new car a week ago, I couldn’t give an honest answer to that question – we won’t be buying another within 24 months but ‘never’ is wrong, too.

TIP: make sure you provide an answer for all possibilities, even if one is ‘unsure’ or ‘don’t know’. If your format allows, ‘other’ not only gives options but can gain more insight for you.

Write questions to get the data you need

“Can you tell us if you are pregnant? Yes No”

Yes I can tell you but the yes answer may mislead you as I’m not pregnant and I assume that’s what you really want to ask me about… I could get really pedantic here and note that I CAN answer but choose not to ( writing ‘please tell us’ or ‘Will you tell us’ are grammatically better than ‘can you tell us’).

TIP: Make sure the question is asking for the information you actually want. In this case, the much simpler ‘are you pregnant?’ would have done the trick.

Getting meaningful and useful results

If you don’t plan your questions carefully, the results you get can be completely meaningless. For example, if 5% of respondents bought a car recently and answered ‘within a week’ you may mistakenly think the next week is prime time to sell a car. There is no way you can tell that someone gave a false answer to compensate for questions they don’t understand/misunderstand/can’t answer.

Depending on how you intend using the answers, skewing results like this can have serious implications. For example, if you plan a marketing campaign and spends thousands of dollars in April when the real results showed September to be effective, you’ve wasted money (in the survey and the marketing). What if you base a new product or pricing structure on the answers collected?

Checking, editing, proof reading and rechecking your questions may seem tedious. The details in faulty questions that I occassionally point out may seem trivial.

The bottom line, however, is that good survey and feedback questions are more fun to answer, give accurate and useful results, and build your credibility (through attention to detail and simplicity for respondents).

I suggest you always get someone else to read your questions before you finalise any form or survey. And, yes, this is a service Word Constructions provides…

Check questions are answered

Clear writing needs to flow so that each statement or each point you make follows on the previous one. As soon as your reader has to stop and think about how the ideas connect or gets confused from a jump in topics, your message is weakened.

It is especially important to directly answer any questions you may raise at the start of any communication*. For example, if the title to your article is ‘retire now or later?” then the article must give information about when to retire; if your article is really about building your super by retiring later, use a title such as ‘super and delayed retirement’ or ‘retire later with more super’.

Likewise, if you include the question ‘should I have a blog?’ you need to include positives and negatives to help a reader make an informed decision; if you just want to list advantages to blogging, use ‘ 10 good reasons to have a blog’ as the topic.

As well as being effective writing, answering questions you raise

  • gives you the opportunity to show (and share) your knowledge
  • allows people to quickly find what they are after (which they appreciate)
  • gives you a structure that makes the writing easier
  • avoids annoying readers with irrelevant information and misleading titles wasting their time

* Of course, this applies to informative writing – if you are asking questions to gather interest, don’t give an answer but you still need to ensure the question and following information are obviously related. For instance. “Too busy to cook from scratch?’ needs to be followed by ‘our recipes give you quick, nutritious meals’ or ‘our flavour sachets save you time and effort’, but not by ‘Whatsit Saucepans are dishwasher friendly’

Give options that make sense

I have written before about the need to use clear questions in surveys to get meaningful results, and given some tips on how to write such questions. Every time I do a survey with poor questions I cringe – do they really not care about getting good results or just don’t understand that not everyone knows what they are really asking?

One of the most common questions I have seen in online surveys is the following:

Are you …


Technically, the answer is yes  – I am male or female and so is every other human I know of! Fairly pointless question to ask unless you have a third group responding.

In this case, we can see what is really being asked (“which are you?”) and the available answers lead us to answering correctly, but it isn’t always so easy.

It was great recently to be asked to help a major research centre refine their questionnaire. They had determined the questions they wanted to ask but understood that how they asked was critical to the final result of their research.

So if you are preparing surveys or questionnaires, my two key tips are:

  • read the questions to make sure the options answer the question and suit your needs
  • get at least one other person to read the questions to ensure they make sense to a less involved pair of eyes

Use your words wisely!

Finding material to blog about

Some days, words will just flow onto your blog, but there are times when it is harder to know what to write about. It’s normal to have days where we’re less creative, or are tired, or overwhelmed or a multitude of other things that get in our way.

A week or so ago, I looked at a new blog – well, newish as it replaces a previous blog by the same person – and noticed a few spelling errors. Knowing the blogger, I let her know about them and thought nothing else of it. A few days later, I noticed that Melissa had added a new post in which she talked about fixing those errors I had pointed out and the importance of proof reading.

This reminded me of how we can find blogging (or article or newsletter, etc) topics from the simple events that happen in our business and personal lives. Small events can remind us of important things or create a useful learning tool. So here are some suggestions for next time you are stuck on what to write…

  • questions clients have recently asked you – e.g. I recently explained bleeds to a couple of clients and I have been asked if I do editing of articles (which I do!), and both of those could become a blog post
  • tips you come across from other business people – for example, I shared some decluttering tips I gained from a workshop I attended
  • mistakes you see in others’ work – not as a means of criticising others, but as a means of learning from their mistakes
  • turning points and changes in your business – either just to let people know of them, or as a means of teaching others alternatives

By including little things in your list of ideas is a good way to increase the amount of topics you have to write about.

Use your words wisely!


The value of clear communications!

I have recently being working through a training book (as a student, not a writer) and found various bits hard to understand. Luckily, I have a group of people around me who have been able to help interpret some of the questions – and I have interpreted other bits for them! I would hate to be struggling through it alone!

One question I thought I understood and prepared an answer for – it took me half an hour or so to get it finished and involved someone else getting some restricted information for me.

At the training course itself, my tutor read through my bookwork and pointed out that the question above was not correctly answered – it was asking for something else entirely. With that knowledge, I could just see what the question meant but it was a struggle! So I rewrote my answer – taking another two hours to do so.

A simpler example from the same training weekend was “Collect the names, titles and contact details for everyone in the training team.” I therefore wrote a list of names, titles and email addresses for the other  members of my team on the course (we worked in teams throughout the course.) I then realised what they really wanted was a list of the names, titles and contact details for the trainers themselves – THE training team, rather than my training team!

Clearer questions would have saved me the stress of worrying I knew what to answer, the confusion of having no clue what to answer at times and the time of having to rewrite some answers. So a very concrete example of how useful clear communications are!