I exchanged e-mails a couple of months ago with Sam Zell, the iconoclastic owner of the Chicago Tribune. I had written him to quite cheekily suggest that I might write some really interesting pieces, the likes of which his quaking and conservative editors would never commission me to write.
Sam and I would shove these articles down the editors' throats, to show them the kind of journalistic spirit he was looking for to save the paper.
Zell replied to say he trusted the editors to "give readers what they want," and I thanked him for writing and dismissed him as just a rich version of the familiar fool who hides behind a notion he knows is not true: that readers wake up in the morning knowing just what they want to read in their newspaper (if only they would tell us, and we could give it to them!).
It's nonsense, most recently and hilariously revealed when a client of mine polled readers on their educational needs. The survey yielded a few good ideas for seminars–ideas immediately called into question by the answers we got to another question, on what kinds of speakers they'd like to hear:
Jack Welch. Bob Costas. Condi Rice. Bill Walsh.
Walsh is dead, and we have just as good a chance of getting him to speak as any of the others.
Other suggestions included the likes of William Horton, Barbara Wallraff, Bryan Garner, Jared Spool, JoAnn Hackos, and of course the inimitable Taz Tally.
As soon as I figure out who any of these people are, I'll get back to you.
Communicators, repeat after me (as I repeat, once again, after the late Larry Ragan): Knowing what readers want is your job, not your readers'.
Yes, and then we have to persuade management that we know what our readers want versus what management thinks they want. 😉
David Murray says
Well, THAT’s a good use of a survey or a focus group: Quantifying what we already know for the old fools in the high stools.
Yes, but first we must overcome the looks of disgust and sighs of frustration when asking employees to take yet another survey. 😉
David Murray says
One reason they get annoyed is they feel, when they answer the questions: Management should already know this!
Another thing I’ve found re: surveys is that often employee disgust results because many communicators don’t do “effective” surveys. We sometimes ask dozens of questions in lengthy, time-consuming surveys, instead of taking the time, thought and effort to write brief, targeted and useful survey questions that employees can do in 10 minutes or less.
When I write a survey, my rule of thumb is no more than 10 question and it should take no more than 10 minutes to do.
David Murray says
Yes; it’s an underrated skill, asking survey questions that cut to the chase. And asking good questions ALSO requires a subtle understanding of the audience, going in.
How much success have you had in keeping others out of the survey question process? I always want to just do it without them weighing in on the questions so as to get true and factual information that is valuable.
Depends on the people involved. I usually try to get them to tell me what information they are looking for, or what question they are looking for an answer to, and then *ask* [tell] them to let me structure the questions so that the “flow” of the survey and the “consistency” of the “survey map” stays focused.
Yes, that’s a bunch of bullshit bingo language, but it generally baffles the “hoo-ha” people sufficiently that they leave you alone and let YOU build the questions.
Tom Keefe says
I agree with the comments, and am just contributing a small bit of knowledge regarding one of the people you mentioned: Taz Tally.
Several years ago, I participated in a Taz Tally-led all-day seminar on the topic of scanning and graphics. Taz was engaging and provided tips that I continue to use every day or two in my professional and personal work.
Jane, he is a native of Alaska. Here is one sentence from his online bio that probably tells you all more about him than you want to know.
“Taz enjoys his home in Homer Alaska where he enjoys mountain biking, kayaking and hiking and nature photography with his cardigan-welsh-corgi Zip.”
At the time I attended the seminar, my wife and I also had a welsh corgi. Her name was Caramel. She (the dog, not the wife) ultimately developed diabetes, began to leave puddles of sugary pee throughout our home, and was put to sleep.
Taz, to-date, has not been euthanized.