How to ask questions to get the response you want

Here’s a question. How would you feel about reducing the voting age from 18 to 16? Or what about giving 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote?

They’re the same question, right? Only they’re not. While they both deal with the legal voting age, they frame the question differently, and that matters.

Market researcher Ipsos-Mori illustrated the impact of framing when they put these exact questions to UK voters. When asked about “reducing” the voting age, only 37% of people supported the change. When asked about “giving” younger people the right to vote, 52% were in favour.

How you ask is as important as what you ask

As the UK voter survey reminds us, how we ask a question is as important as what the question is. Would you prefer surgery with an 80% survival rate or 20% risk of mortality? Yoghurt that is 97% fat free, or 3% fat?

It’s not the first time I’ve written about framing; how the words, numbers and phrasing you use send their own subconscious message that will influence the reaction you get.

But it’s time to talk about it again because an example with profound real-life consequences is dominating Australian media at the moment.

The same-sex marriage debate is rolling on with the federal government to launch a plebiscite (a national non-binding postal vote) on the topic. So how will that question be posed? I’ve seen different versions reported in the media, such as:

Do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?; and
Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?

At first glance the questions seem the same, but subtle differences can be telling. For instance:

• “Do you support” suggests that there has been work underway to make the change and that this is a collective effort, whereas “should the law be changed” makes it sound like someone has to do the work, starting from scratch;
• “Change in the law” and “law to be changed” both focus on the act of change (the legal instrument) more than the outcome (marriage equality), and as previous referenda have proven, people tend to vote to leave things as they are unless they feel very strongly;
• “Allow” is a more permissive word than permit or legalise;
• “To marry” speaks more to the once-off act of getting hitched whereas “to be married” would elevate thoughts to the long-term commitment

Australia is certainly not the first to consider this issue (indeed, at this rate we will soon be one of the last), so how did the Republic of Ireland phrase the question to their voters back in 2015?  They asked whether a new section in the Constitution should be inserted stating: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex”.

In this case, the question was about adding something, not removing or changing it, and as such no one seemed disadvantaged. They avoided a negative (loss aversion) frame, and made equality (“without distinction”) the focus. The outcome of the vote was: yes 62%, no 38%. 

Framing for the response you want

The question itself aside, you can frame the context in which a question is considered. Here are four angles to consider.

1. Social norms

As a social animal, we are influenced by what others do; what the “norm” is. If the norm is with your side of the argument, you can capitalise on that. But if the mood is against you, you’ll need to devise a strategy to counteract its lure.

The “Yes” to marriage equality campaign is leading with the statement: “I’m voting yes”. Note they’ve gone with “I’m” rather than “we’re”. Why? By emphasising “I’m”, they are signalling individuals can show leadership and courage in their act of voting. They have judged there is enough community support that people can feel proud in their “yes” proclamation — they are normalising affirmation.

The “No” campaign has likewise judged that the mood of the masses is pro-marriage equality, and therefore have decided to frame a vote against it as being socially acceptable too. Their “It’s OK to say no” campaign is intended to dispel people’s concerns about social exclusion if they vote against the change.

2. Broadening and re-framing

If you can’t change the question, you can try to change what the question represents. Former Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott, a “no” campaigner, has attempted to re-frame the same-sex marriage question as a vote on protecting religious freedom and stopping political correctness. In his eyes, the vote is more an opportunity to protest against the direction of social change than it is marriage equality.

3. Wordsmithing

You may have noticed that I have so far been using the terms same-sex marriage and marriage equality interchangeably, but of course we know that the choice of words carries weight. Get out your thesaurus and ensure the words you choose support your preferred position. The range of the language used in this debate for instance includes:

• “Marriage equality”, which emphasises a correction to one group being treated differently to another. It is difficult to argue against wanting all people to be treated equally;
• “Same-sex marriage” emphasises categorisation, like it’s a special type of marriage that is distinct from that between a man and woman. This could help advocates allay concerns from their opposition that ‘traditional’ marriage will be affected;
• “SSM” as an acronym creates psychological distance from what the acronym represents. Australians latched on to the less frightening “GFC” in place of “Global Financial Crisis”, for example;
• “Gay marriage” again emphasises a categorisation of people. “Gay” as a word itself is still somewhat loaded and in this context can be used to create an “us vs. them” tone; and
• “Legalising same-sex marriage” can suggest such marriages are illegal; there’s a difference between not being legal (not allowed) and being illegal (expressly prohibited).

4. Acquiescence response bias

A strategy to frame questions for an affirmative answer is about creating “do you agree” statements. When people are asked whether they agree to something, they are more prone to the “acquiescence response bias”. In short, we find it more difficult to say, ‘no, I don’t agree’.

As an example, in one news poll the question on same-sex marriage was phrased, “Do you agree that marriage should only be between a man and a woman?”, increasing the odds of a higher number of respondents stating they are against change. But phrasing the question, “Do you agree that marriage should not only be between a man and a woman?”, would likely sway the result in the opposite direction.

Framing your message

Debates on public policy like marriage equality are a reminder of how influential language can be. The lesson is to embrace the power of your words. Whether it is an email, letter, presentation, policy, tender or webpage, if you want to maximise the chances of getting the response you want, be deliberate in how you craft your message.

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