One of the biggest challenges for community engagement practitioners is coming up with engagement questions and finding the right way to ask them.

What you ask is guided by your topic and understanding of your target audience. However, wording your questions requires skill and practice. A good engagement question is relevant, well-written, easy to answer and should provide you with valuable insight. It’s no easy task, so here are our tips on how to get it right:

 1. Start at the end

It’s easy to begin the process by brainstorming a list of questions to ask and getting straight into the writing process.

But, this is far from the best way to start. More often than not you will end up with a series of questions that are neither relevant nor helpful. A good place to start is at the end, thinking through what you need to learn from the community and how involved you would like them to be. Once you get this list together, your questions will almost write themselves.

Starting at the end will ensure you include all the questions you need to be answered, and help you to word them in a way that you will get useful data. It will also prevent you from filling up on questions you already know the answers to or those that don’t matter.

2. Be concise and effective

Write your questions in plain language, without jargon or complex information (hint Grammarly is a free online tool that automatically detects grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice and style mistakes in your writing). The fewer words you need the better. Videos, images and illustrated interactive maps can be a great way to communicate complex information, project scope as well as what the negotiables and non-negotiables are for the project.

Before getting to the questions, make sure you provide enough information upfront so your community can make informed decisions and really add value to the project. But remember to keep questions simple and provide more avenues to get in touch (contact details, website address etc) for those who want to learn more.

Writing engagement questions also means using language that suits your audience and finding the right tools for the job. Engaging with young people to inform the design of a local skate park, for instance, should be done differently to a broader consultation on the development of a customer service strategy.

3. Avoid double-barreled survey questions

Particularly relevant for surveys, be aware of double-barreled questions. That is, a question that touches upon more than one issue, yet allows only for one answer.

For example: Do you think the council needs to improve the town centre and shared pathways? This should be asked two separate questions.

The word “and” is often an indicator of a double-barreled question, so make sure you have someone review each question for ambiguity or confusing structure. Don’t leave anything open to interpretation.

4. Dig deeper

Open-ended questions provide meaningful insight that can help your team or organization better understand the how and why of the project and can reveal values and perspectives.

Asking open-ended questions invites people to dig deeper than simply answering with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It’s within these responses that the real gems of information are found, so make sure your team is prepared and willing to spend the time analyzing and making sense of the valuable input. Digital engagement tools like Social Pinpoint allow you to start making sense of the responses straight away by tagging or coding comment content throughout the project.

 5. Go spatial

Location-based input improves the quality of your responses because they are specific. We are all experts of our own neighborhood, which brings a sense of belonging and ownership. Inviting specific input can offer up invaluable local information that will lead to better project outcomes. Ask questions about specific locations to deepen or even extend your understanding of a particular issue, challenge or opportunity.

Location-based input provides richer data for your project.

6. Only ask questions you don’t already know the answer to

Sounds obvious, right? It is! And yet a lot of surveys, especially customer satisfaction surveys, go against this principle. Our point is, don’t make a survey overly long with useless questions you already know the answer to.

Losing all unnecessary questions opens more opportunities to use the space for questions that could potentially bring something new and valuable to the table.

7. Keep it fun (and fast)

Aim for an experience of five minutes or less. Survey length is the number one reason respondents drop out.

If your survey is short and sweet, there’s a greater chance more respondents will complete it.

Little incentives can be a drawcard. Think about the experience of the people answering your questions. Get creative.

Asking better and more engaging questions leads to higher quality participation so it is important to start your consultation on the right note and take the time to devise questions that can give your council the quality information needed to make better decisions.