Wednesday, 14 October 2015

What can researchers learn from film script writers?

If you study the art of film making, it will tell you that a good film script is based around one great question, that grabs your attention from the off and then the story naturally emerges from this and slowly reveals the answer. The question drives the whole story.

Here are some examples:
  • What if every day was the same? GROUNDHOG DAY 
  • What if a nun was made to be a nanny? THE SOUND OF MUSIC
  • What if a really smart innocent person went to prison? SHAWSHANK REDEPMPTION
  • What if dreams & reality were inter-changeable? MATRIX
  • What if there's more to life than being ridiculously good looking? ZOOLANDER
All the books also emphasise how important good narrative structure is to making a great film i.e. films that people want to watch and concentrate on watching from start to finish. Films construct heroes through which the story is told, and these stories needs to adhere to a strict story structure. There are about 7 of these basic story structures, established from a time well before the dawn of film making, in fact the basic structure of storytelling has hardly changed much for thousands of years.



Building a survey around a great question


I believe a good survey can be built around one great question in the same way and that the key to designing a great survey is then adhering to a strict narrative structure: where you place the respondent in the role of the hero; and the questions in the survey help the respondent to slowly reveal the answers to this central question by telling their own story.

Here are a couple of examples of a simple question that you could build a survey around:

“What is the secret of a really good shampoo?”

From the off, you immediately know the purpose of the survey and you can imagine taking participants on a journey through a series of questions that mine their viewpoint on this topic. You can tie all the questions into this e.g. first of all we would like to establish which brands you have had experience of using, what do you think about these different brands, which are the best in your mind and why? If you were going to sum up what you are looking for in a perfect shampoo what features would it have….etc.

“In a life of hair washing what have you learnt?”

Again this question has an in-built story structure, you might ask people from the outset to think about all the different types of shampoo they have experience of using in the past and what they thought of them, and what brands they have built some affinity with. You could then get them to think about their experiences of good and bad hair days as a result of using certain types of shampoo etc.

It’s interesting how once a good central question is established, the rest of the questions you ask can flow out of this easily and fluidly. Have a go next time you are planning a survey and you will see!

Narrative structure: the key to good surveys


Essentially what you are doing is building a story and like film making it’s important this story adhere to a strict structure. What kills so many survey experiences I believe, is being asked a whole load of questions in no particular order. In the same way as you might walk out of a film if it was just made up of a series of unrelated series of visuals and dialog, if they don’t understand where the survey is going, people get frustrated and are more likely to drop out or not pay attention to the question. A survey is a journey and the respondents need to know where they are going, otherwise they could be like kids in the back of the car asking “are we nearly there yet” every 5 minutes.

Ready-made narratives


Like in story telling where they have mapped out the 7 common plot structure, If you are struggling to think up your own survey narrative there are a number of ready made well established ones you can beg borrow or steal. Here are a couple of examples.

The trial narrative


The “trial” narrative is one we have repeatedly used very successfully. Putting a product or service on trial has an in built narrative structure. You have first the case for the prosecution; what is wrong with a product or service, what are you frustrated by. Then you have the case for the defence; what has the product or service done well. Then you have the jury process where respondents evaluate the pros and cons of a products’ strengths and weaknesses and finally a verdict where respondents are asked to give their final rating. We have used and adapted this idea in a number of ways, across a range of different consumer surveys.



The build a new future narrative


This is another one we have used in different guises. You start out by asking “What are the strengths and weaknesses of current products/service/situation” i.e. what is your life like right now, you then ask “what do you want in a perfect world” you then can explore living in the real world with practical constraints get them to explore trade off solutions. Once drawn into this process you can then challenge participants to design their own version of these product or services with or without any practical constraints and then ask them to cross evaluate each others ideas.


The journey narrative


People can very simply grasp the idea of a journey. So you can use this idea to help guide people though a whole range of survey processes. You basically tell people at the beginning of the survey where they are starting from and where they will end up.



Making the respondent the hero of their own story


This can be a tremendously powerful conceptual construct to really draw out more thoughtful feedback from respondents. They need to feel that what they are doing is important, has meaning and that you care about what they have to say. What you have to allow them to do is tell their story and give them room to do this by asking questions that place them in control. Rather like in a film you let them enter an imaginary world where you set them challenges to overcome. Like this example below.

Want to learn more?


If you are interested in learning more about how to apply narrative structure to your surveys, I recommend you start out by reading a book that was originally recommended to me by a good friend of mine who is a lecture in film editing. Discussing some of these ideas with him, he told me I must read “The writer’s journey” by Christopher Vogel who is one of Hollywood's most successful script editors. It’s a book that explains in detail the strict narrative structure of films and much of the thinking in this book can be directly applied to survey copy writing. I thoroughly recommend you read this book yourself as the start of a journey to improve you own surveys.


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