How to get research working for you and your writing, part 2

It’s very easy to be lazy about research for your writing projects when all you need to do is Google the topic and hey presto, you have an instant choice of several million results to browse without leaving the comfort of your office chair. But even in our virtual age, it can still pay dividends to get off our butts and go see, touch and feel. In this second article, we look at ways of getting people to open up and say what they really think. (If you haven’t read part 1, click here.)

Be a “mystery shopper”

There’s a lot to be said for using these “mystery shopper” techniques to research and get to know your audience. Although some people might say it’s dishonest to conceal your identity, the problem is people won’t always be honest with you if you tell them who you really are and why you’re asking these questions.

That’s especially true of rank-and-file staff in large organisations, if they think you’re “management.” Many will tell you what they think you want to hear. Similarly consumers in stores and shopping malls will put up barriers, especially if you’re walking around with a video camera crew or even an audio recorder. Even the people brought into “focus groups” (those supposedly informal discussion sessions highly revered by researchers and marketing people) tend to exaggerate their existing opinions and invent an opinion on the spot if they didn’t happen to have one previously. The reason in all cases, I believe, is because people find these circumstances artificial and intimidating – hardly conducive to relaxed, natural dialogue.

You’re far more likely to get the truth from staff in a large organisation, say, if they think you’re the person who’s come in to fix the photocopying machine, or from shoppers if you’re pushing a loaded cart in a supermarket and strike up a conversation with them while waiting to go through the checkout.

Show interest to build up trust and get honest answers

However even if you’re upfront and say you’re researching for a project, you can still get to the truth by gaining people’s confidence, and that you do by becoming their friend.  How do you befriend your interviewees? You get them to talk about themselves. And not just their business or professional selves, either, but their personal selves. Pick up on some small thing to get the conversation going … a golf trophy on a shelf, a picture of some children or pets, an attractive piece of jewellery, the quality of the coffee, the weather. Sometimes you’ll find that their demeanour changes abruptly – they soften, smile, relax. Once you’ve got them going on that, ask their opinion on a small point that’s relevant to your project. Then gradually guide the conversation into everything else you want to know.

There are very, very, few people in the industrialised world who positively will not warm to someone whom they believe is genuinely interested in them, their life, and their opinions. Over the years I’ve conducted literally thousands of corporate interviews, many of which were recorded on video or audio, and in all that time I only failed to get through to two people. One was a 7-foot car factory worker with tattoos everywhere, a small chain through one nostril, and a severe speech impediment. The other was a rock band’s road manager who was about to get fried by the electrics in pouring rain on an open-air stage surrounded by live cables. Everybody else, though, eventually opened up and spoke their thoughts freely.

It’s not because I’ve got a friendly face, large cleavage, bulging wallet or anything else.  It’s because I genuinely like people and I am genuinely interested in them. Members of your audience aren’t idiots. If you’re only pretending to be interested in them, they’ll know. So you have to be interested. Really. And if you are, you’ll get the results you want.

Click on to Part 3 of this article…

More research resources:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand




  1. […] on, now, to Part 2 of this article – and here’s Part […]

  2. […] what they really think. (If you haven’t read the earlier articles, click here for part 1, and click here for part […]