Does this topic seem unrelated to boosting the effectiveness of communications? If so, I hope to convince you otherwise. In my experience, forms are usually the gateway to other interaction. As such, they can be a great tool to set the tone and establish future expectations -- or they can thwart a budding relationship before it has a chance to start.
Consider this story:
Confusion At The Rally
Recently a non-profit organization that I support staged a recruiting event to expand a volunteer program. As I milled around with other prospective recruits, the director passed out copies of a two-page screening questionnaire. He asked us to fill in the form completely and hand it in before the meeting started.
We gamely set about filling in the blanks, and there were many. The questions covered our skills, past experience, hours of availability, and reasons for volunteering. All of these were structured as fill-ins, e.g. "Describe your past involvement with XYZ Organization." But there was one problem: there were no writing surfaces available in the small anteroom where we all stood. People struggled to write cogent sentences while aiming skittish pens at the floppy papers in their hands.
When the doors opened to the main auditorium, we dutifully began to hand in our papers and sit down. About a third of us had done so when someone noticed that the forms didn't ask about contact info. The director announced: "Please add in your phone and email address on the top sheet." Many people had to scramble to retrieve their papers and comply. Everyone scribbled their info hurriedly, once again leaning against nothing.
I can only imagine the nightmare when staff later tried to decipher all that shaky handwriting. How many emails bounced back? How many phone numbers were entered incorrectly because an 8 looked like a 6? How many carefully thought-out replies were unusable because they were just plain illegible?
More to the point, how did this poor execution of the first activity of the evening dampen everything that came next? People were buzzing in that anteroom, and the tone of their comments ranged from confused, to frustrated, to angry. Was the rest of the program able to undo that first impression of disorganization? I would say that quite a few of the attendees were inconvenienced enough to remember the experience of the botched questionnaire more vividly than any of the night's later elements.
Have you ever experienced a similar escapade? If so, you know how it can suck the enthusiasm out of everyone.
Respectful Intel Gathering
Information-gathering documents may seem mundane, but they matter greatly, for three reasons:
1. Forms require peoples' effort, time and attention. Therefore, they need to be tailored to do as much of the work as possible, to ease the burden on the respondents. Some ways to do this:
a. Use rankings or multiple choice selection whenever possible. Most routine questions can be handled with a list of possible responses. For example: "How many years have you worked here? Circle the answer that applies: Under 1 year; 1 - 5, 6 - 10; 10 - 15 (etc.)..."
b. Pay attention to sequencing. Start with simple questions, then go into the ones that take more thought. This will warm up your respondents and help them give you their best answers. Similarly, if your questions suggest a timeline, organize them to flow from past, to present, to future. (Try not to follow a future-oriented question like "What are your goals?" with past-oriented questions such as "What is your highest level of education?")
c. Provide the basic amenities to show people that you are thinking of their comfort and ease of use:
- Give people tabletops, clipboards or other writing surfaces.
- Pass out pens that work and fit the page space requirements (Flair pens can leave a broad, blurry swath that's hard to decipher; pens with hard points inflict puncture wounds on the paper.)
- Make sure to give adequate horizontal and vertical space for fill-in answers. People don't write in 10-point font size!
- Distribute forms with clear instructions about how to complete and return them.
- Give the questionnaire an appropriate title and include your organization's name so that, even when a person finds it in the bottom of a tote bag a month from now, it will be clear where it came from.
- If they will be mailed, always put the full mailing address on the forms themselves. For forms that are taken to be filled in later, it's also a good idea to include a contact person's email address and/or phone number for questions.
2. Forms gather information for later use. Therefore, you need to set boundaries, for yourself, for your respondents, and for the people who will be inputting the data. Ask yourself: What is need-to-have, and what is nice-to-have? What might be considered confidential in nature, and how can you address concerns about privacy issues? Other points to consider:
a. Define all the contact info you need and ask for it clearly. If people are not already searchable on a shared network, you will need to be extremely vigilant to obtain pristine email addresses and phone numbers for your contact list.
- Provide clear prompts and good-sized, well-defined fields for contact information so answers are complete and readable, no matter how rushed the respondent is or what the penmanship quality is.
- Include detailed instructions and sample answers as guidance, especially for phone numbers and email addresses. It's amazing how many folks still leave out their area code in the phone number field, or just write "SuzieQ88" in the email address field and forget to fill in their last part ("@yahoo.com").
- Ditch phone designations such as Home, Cell, and Work. Instead, include check boxes for Preferred Phone Number and Secondary Phone Number. Everyone has voice mail, so don't bother with Day or Evening.
- Bear in mind that even brilliant people make mistakes and need to cross things out and rewrite their answers, so leave plenty of blank space between questions for this kind of maneuver, and have extra forms handy for do-overs.
b. Will you use this information to generate an attendance sheet, a contact list, name tags, labels, or a membership roster? Make sure to have respondents put their first name and last name in separate fields. That way when the data is entered into a database, you can sort it alphabetically either way.
b. How and where will the information be filed, stored, retrieved, and implemented? Design your form so that your end users find it easy to use. For example, if the information will be entered into a database, try to have all answers appear on the right side of the page, so data entry can be done quickly. If the forms will go into a paper file, think about how the file will be organized, and put the most vital organizing information in the top right corner where it can be seen quickly when the file folder is opened.
3. Forms leave impressions. They cause people to form opinions about your organization, your mission, your culture and your capability. Tweak them so that they communicate good things to your audience.
a. Explain why you're asking for information. You don't have to write a thesis paper for this. It can be as simple as: "Help us get to know you better by answering this brief survey."
b. Avoid vague questions. Instead of asking, "What type of tutoring program interests you the most?" it's much better to say, "Please circle the age groups and subjects that you prefer on the listing shown here. If you don't find what you're looking for, circle Other and write it in on the blank line provided."
c. Phrase questions as requests, not demands. "Please tell us about your past experience in this field" sounds a lot friendlier than "List qualifications here." This will give the form a softer edge and help people stay engaged as they fill it in.
Above all, show respect for everyone by stepping back and reviewing your form from the user's point of view before you send it to print. Check its content:
- Is it clear what we want?
- What could be said better?
- What ambiguities or implications need to be reworked?
- What can be left out now and found out in follow-up communication?
Check its formatting:
- Is it intuitive?
- How easy is it to fill in?
- How much time will it take?
- How easy will it be to read and process the filled-in answers?
A Gateway to Great Things -- Or Not
If you think that application forms, screening forms or other questionnaires are too mundane to be considered messaging, think again. Forms ARE communication. Moreover, they guide and facilitate subsequent communication. If you treat them in a cavalier fashion, your casual approach will come across as contempt, and you'll never know the full impact of that ripple effect. That's because an unknown percentage of the people who don't like your form, simply won't fill in your form -- leaving no trail behind -- and leaving all other communications efforts high and dry.
Do you value the information you seek? Do you value the people you seek it from? Then take the effort, time and attention to create the best vehicle possible to get it.