Survey the Scene: How to Organize Research Stories

August 1, 2014

Most survey releases fail because they focus on the study, not on the results.

Here’s how to organize an effective survey story that highlights your findings:

1. Set up the survey in the intro.

• First, communicate one to three key findings in the lead. Here’s an example from a FleishmanHillard release by John Armato for H&R Block:

“Most 8-to-11 year olds would rather go to school year-round than pay a nickel of  ‘allowance tax.’ But pit that nickel against Nickelodeon, and they’d gladly fork it over to protect their tube time. They also imagine Batman would pay more income tax than either Superman or Spiderman.”

Notice that Armato doesn’t describe the survey itself in the lead. You don’t need to — get the readers’ attention first.

• Summarize the survey in the nut graph. Now that you’ve introduced the fascinating findings, briefly explain the survey:

“The dominance of TV, probable wealth of the Caped Crusader and preference for college tuition are among the findings of a nationwide survey just released by H&R Block.”

• Describe the methodology in the background section. Too many writers open with the methodology. Readers hear: “Methodology…blah blah blah…sample size…blah blah blah…margin of error…blah blah blah…rhesus monkey…blah blah blah…”

Don’t lead with the blah-blah-blah! Paragraph three is soon enough for this information:

“More than 300 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders were interviewed at shopping malls in 10 cities across the country.”

Of course, link to more details for the wonks who are interested. Make your methodology, survey questions and full results available — just not in the release itself.

2. List the results in the body.

List three to seven key findings in the body of your survey release. Use a hierarchical structure, moving from most important (or most surprising, or valuable or hilarious) findings to least. For example: 

• Parents get cranky while figuring taxes. Nearly half of the kids chose “crabby and mad” to describe their parents’ attitude when figuring their taxes. 

• No on allowance tax to cover education. When asked whether it would be a good idea to require kids to pay taxes on their allowances to help pay for schools, 70 percent thought it would be a bad idea.

• “Michael Jordan: Pay our taxes.” The survey also asked kids to name the celebrity they would like to see pay their family’s income taxes. They most often mentioned Chicago Bulls forward Michael Jordan.

3. Finish strong

• Transition to the end in the wrap-up. What interesting finding can you use to wind the story down?

“Incidentally, a majority of kids (52 percent) think Jordan pays more income tax than the president. In all likelihood, they are correct, considering Jordan’s reported $65 million income.”

• Circle back to the lead in the kicker. Leave a lasting impression with a concrete, creative, provocative final paragraph:

“No word on how he compared to Batman.”

Copyright  © 2014.  Ann Wylie.  All rights reserved.

Content Marketing Writing

        Want more techniques for writing content marketing messages that engage readers? Join Ann Wylie for “Content Marketing Writing,” a PRSA webinar, on Aug. 21. Visit to register. Free for PRSA members

Ann Wylie

Ann Wylie ( works with communicators who want to reach more readers and with organizations that want to get the word out. To learn more about her training, consulting or writing and editing services, contact her at


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