What you don’t know (but should) about public opinion polls

We really need to stop promoting and emphasizing these polls. They can do more harm than good but creating assumptions that shouldn’t be created on such small amounts of information.

A fake pie chart form a poll

“Poll” by Sean MacEntee, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0Y 2.0

You see them in the news quite often, opinion polls on politics, the environment, etc. And people place great emphasis on these results. The problem is, we shouldn’t.

Sample size issues

What you don’t know is, the majority of these polls sample a very small amount of people.  For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau 2012 population statistics, there are over 42 million people in the United States between the ages of 20 and 29.  And yet, if you look at polls published regularly by the news media, their sample size is typically less than 300 people within a similar age range.

  • On December 15, 2013, USA Today (in cooperation with Pew Research) published the results of a poll: Obama struggles with Millenials. The poll only surveyed 229 millenials.
  • The article above cited a December 2013 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll as supporting evidence. That poll surveyed only 100 millenials.

So, less than 300 people are supposed to accurately represent the opinion of 42 million individuals.

The examples above do openly say their sample size and their margins of error, but my point is, we shouldn’t be placing such huge emphasis on polls with such a small sample size.

Collection methods

The other thing that always makes me very nervous about opinion polls is their collection methods. No collection method is perfect, all of them have flaws:

  • Phone polls: Typically people polling only call home phones. There is a huge population of cell-phone only homes that are left out.
  • Story-linked web polls: If someone clicks on a story and then takes a poll related to the story, they would be considered to have “high interest” in the story, which means the poll leaves out others who are “low interest.”
  • Web polls: You have to be on the web to take them. I know that’s considered very common, but there are still populations within the U.S. who are not regularly online.
  • Interception polls (such as stopping people at a mall): These polls typically end up targeting a segment of the population that has an interest in similar activities (otherwise they wouldn’t be in the same place). Some examples of this gone wrong are asking people only at a rock concert how they feel about rock music or asking consumers when they are shopping how the consumer confidence is.

Interest level

A third key factor about polls is that someone is not typically going to take the time to take them if they aren’t interested in the topic. This immediately skews your results to those in the “high interest” or “strong opinion” categories.

Think about your own habits. What if you were in the middle of something and you got a call asking you to take a poll on a subject you could care less about. Would you take it? Probably not. But if it’s something you are very passionate about, you probably will.

In sum, we really need to stop promoting and emphasizing these polls. They can do more harm than good but creating assumptions that shouldn’t be created on such small amounts of information.

For more on this, visit:

The Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective, Part 2: We No Longer Believe Evidence and Facts

 

 

Medical series: Building better doctor-patient relations

“Could it be strep throat?” I asked as I shifted from side to side, not feeling well, on one of those exam beds in a doctor’s office which some designer tried to make look like a lounge chair, but ends up looking like a sanitary torture device. “No, it’s not strep” said the doctor, not looking up and continuing to write.  I realized at this point that I had to be a little more aggressive, even though I was  not feeling well. “Then what is it?” I asked.

This was a game this particular doctor and I played a lot. She was by far one of the best doctors I had ever had, but her one weakness was how she answered questions. She answered exactly the question that was asked. Nothing more and nothing else.

Building Better Doctor-Patient Relations

I know it’s been said a million times already in seminars, blogs, books, and schools across the country, but this is yet another reminder for doctors out there: listen for what your patients are really asking instead of what they do ask. In my case above, my real question was “What’s wrong with me?” but because I had already been trying to sort it out in my head on my own, it came out much differently.

Sometimes the patients are passive-aggressive and that’s why they ask the question the way they do. Or, the patient could be more like me and be very logical in nature. Logical patients are going to try to figure it out on their own, get as far as they can down the road of a conclusion and then ask the question.

Regardless of why they do it, some patients won’t ask what they really want to ask or say what they really need to say. That’s why it’s so critical for doctors to slow down, and really think about what the patient is saying and then have a conversation from there.

More patients = More money?

With rising healthcare costs, rising office costs, etc., doctors feel pressure to serve a significant amount of patients every day to make money. The calculation, to many doctors, seems simple. More patients = more money. On the other hand, there are doctors offering concierge services where, for an annual fee, they agree to take fewer patients and devote as much time to you as you need. Their formula looks more like: less patients paying more money each = more money. Both of these formulas are at the extreme and both are riddled with issues, which we won’t go into in this post.

The point is, as with many things, the correct answer lies somewhere between the two and is the same as with any business; take on only as many customers as you can treat well. Any more than that, you’ll get unhappy customers and that will reduce your marketing effectiveness and your ability to recruit new patients.

How to Listen

So we’ve established a business reason for taking time to listen to patients and I’m hoping anyone that reads this understands the personal reasons for doing so, but how do you do it? Luckily, you already know how, it’s just taking the time to do it and having someone like me remind you:

  • Slow down and really take the time to listen to the patient.
  • Ask yourself not only what the patient asked, but what may be their underlying question or concern.
  • Ask probing questions and encourage the patient to talk.
  • Even though you think information may be irrelevant, still take time to listen to it. There might be something hidden in that information that can help you diagnose or treat the patient.

Now go forth and really listen! 🙂

Top 5 reasons to join Rotary

Yesterday, I had the honor of speaking to a group of college students about professional networking. As part of that presentation, I highly recommended joining Rotary or Rotaract (for students).

Here are my top five reasons to join Rotary:

  1. Increased knowledge of the community and current issues. The majority of Rotary clubs have a guest speaker each week. The topics vary widely, so you get a wide variety of information. We all have busy lives and there are topics I either don’t have the time or wouldn’t even think to research, but Rotary gives me a chance to hear from experts on those topics.
  2. Professional networking.  Rotary allows you to develop meaningful relationships will fellow community leaders. The weekly lunches give you the opportunity to really find out who your fellow Rotarians are. I once had a President I worked for who commented on the strength of my community connections and inquired how I’d gotten them.  “They are all in Rotary with me,” I responded.
  3. Make the world a better place. Whether it is holding a roadside cleanup, building a playground, or donating together to fund a much-needed well in an impoverished country, Rotary offers a structured and safe way to make a difference.  You know your money and time is going to a great cause and it’s so rewarding to see the results. I’ve worked on community service projects, interviewed students for scholarships, and reviewed and voted-on grants submissions. Each has been rewarding in its own way.
  4. International programs. There are a wide variety of opportunities to learn more about different parts of the world. You can travel and do community service work, be a host family for an exchange student, or be a short-term (usually one week) host for a young professional in the Group Study Exchange program. I’ve done the latter and it was an incredible experience. I met some amazing young professionals from Rome that I am now grateful to call my friends. And, I had the chance to visit them in Rome, Italy.
  5. Share your passions. I don’t just working in marketing, I live and breathe it. I’m also a teacher at heart, so I truly enjoy sharing my marketing knowledge with others. Rotary has given me a way to present to my fellow Rotarians in my own club and other clubs.  In 2011, I gave a presentation to my local Rotary club titled, “Effective marketing using the broken windows theory.” Approximately 70 people showed that day at lunch and a fellow Rotarian taped my presentation for me and I posted it on YouTube. From the people in the room referring me and the YouTube link, I’ve been able to give that same presentation to more Rotary clubs, at a national marketing conference, at an Air National Guard leadership conference, to many individual businesses and organizations, and to two chambers of commerce as their keynote speaker. I would have never had the opportunity to do any of those talks had it not been for Rotary.

So, now that I’ve convinced you that Rotary is definitely something you need to be a part of, research a local club and get involved! Technically, you have to be invited, but I guarantee you, if you show up, someone will step forward and “invite” you on the spot. For those of you in Rotary, what things would you add to this list? How has Rotary enriched your life and your community?

“It’s Not About the Nail” video and the problem of how she feels

A while back, I wrote a blog post titled, Communicating more effectively with women, the problem is how she FEELS.  There’s now a video going viral called, “It’s Not About the Nail,” which highlights the communication issue in problem-solving between men and women. I think it does an excellent job of demonstrating the male perspective. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a few minutes and watch!

Dear company representatives, stop commenting on controversial issues!


Above: CNN responding to Papa John’s claims. Note: This is just an example of a video circulating. This does not mean I agree or disagree with CNN (otherwise, this would be a pretty hypocritical blog post, wouldn’t it?).

 

Dear company representatives (especially those in food and consumer goods),

Allow me to give you some professional advice: Stop commenting on controversial issues!  Especially if they aren’t directly related to your product line.

Yes, I know, you are family-owned companies in most cases, but learn from the Chick-Fil-A equal rights debacle and, most recently, the Papa John’s founder’s Obamacare statements and keep quiet. You can’t comment on a controversial issue and come away without offending SOMEONE and, in both of the above cases, a large portion of their consumer base. They will then boycott you and your bottom line is going to suffer tremendously. Not only that, but you’ll probably cause long-term brand damage.

And don’t think you can probably get away with it in your personal life either even though you may be “off the clock.” As a major representative for your company, any comments you say can and WILL be used against you in the courts of public opinion. Yes, I know, that feels like you are limited in your speech and that you are restricted more than the average person. I can empathize there. But guess what? That’s reality. That’s the price you pay for what you do for a living.

So, stop talking and spend your time focusing on the core aspects of your business. Believe me, you’ll thank me for this when you get your next check and it’s not significantly smaller.  Your PR people will, in-turn, thank you for not putting them through a very-not-fun crisis situation.

Your friend,

Nicole

The Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective, Part 2: We No Longer Believe Evidence and Facts

Intro

I think almost all of us can agree that America is extremely polarized right now. The middle, the bipartisan, the moderate, whatever you choose to call it, is either gone or silenced. In the Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective parts 1 and 2, I’d like to add two of my thoughts on why we, in America, are experiencing an extreme polarization.

A couple of disclaimers:

  • My expertise is communications and marketing only. I also recognize that my expertise is limited and that there are people with much greater expertise than I in these fields.
  • If you read into any of this as leaning politically in one way or the other, you are reading something into it that I didn’t put there.
  • I believe, like most large-scale societal issues, that there isn’t one answer or two answers. There are a lot of contributing factors. Again, this is limited to my thoughts based on communications and marketing only. Other subject matter experts will have differing theories and views. I encourage them to share them as well.
  • I do not claim to have the right answers to the concerns I bring up. I offer my best at a solution and hope, by publishing this, that together we can come up with the right solution.

Part 2: We no longer believe evidence and facts

We are in a digital age where anyone with basic Photoshop skills can edit photographs and information in a very short amount of time (Don’t believe me? See the How to Cheat on a Test video above), our figureheads decry everything as a conspiracy, students attempt to use Wikipedia as a source in their research papers, and someone is constantly challenging the credibility historical accounts and documents. And, in some cases, all of the above are true and happen. People doctor photos and documents, some things are a conspiracy, sometimes Wikipedia is right, and we are learning new things about our history every day.

The problem is, with so much uncertainty about the validity of evidence and facts, everyone is free to make up their own version of truth rather than accept a universal version of truth. The lack of agreement based on evidence, then, leads to our polarizing thoughts. If not everyone is playing with the same version of the rules, the game quickly becomes chaotic. Can you imagine if we all decided to come up with our own definition of how long an inch is? Don’t get me wrong, questioning and testing is how we progress and ensure that our information is true and accurate, but some conclusions must be drawn at some point and universally accepted or the polarity will continue.

So whose role in our society is it to be the fact and evidence police? Typically, it’s been those in journalism and higher education (disclosure: I work at a community college as an administrator). I covered pretty well how the Internet’s hive mind has, unfortunately damaged journalism’s reputation in Part 1: We Stopped Listening to the Other Side, so, for this post, I will focus on higher education.

It’s been the researchers at the top research institutions in our country and internationally that constantly challenge facts and validate evidence for us. The problem is, we don’t believe them and/or value them anymore. My thoughts on why that is are as follows:

  • People don’t fully understand the scientific process. One study published says that chocolate is good for you. Six months, later, a study published says it isn’t. This leads people to believe that they can’t trust either study. In reality, the conflicting evidence is part of the process. Now, the researchers have to try to isolate why chocolate is good in some cases and bad in others. Perhaps it’s that one study used milk chocolate and the other used dark chocolate. So, through a new round of research, the studies narrow it down further show that DARK chocolate is good for you, while MILK chocolate isn’t.
  • Cognitive Dissonance leads us to disbelieve evidence. Here we visit our friend again, Cognitive Dissonance Theory. When people are faced with information that doesn’t agree with their current beliefs. they will attempt to reconcile this difference. There are a lot of ways they can do this: form new beliefs, modify their beliefs, avoid anything contrary to their beliefs, or reject anything that does not align with our beliefs. In this case, I’m talking about the latter. However, there are times when, in fact, there is a conspiracy and the actions of a few make us question the actions of many.
  • Some researchers actually do manipulate evidence. There are legitimate cases where researchers, for a variety of reasons, have manipulated their research and evidence. Unfortunately, that reflects on all researchers and makes people question the validity of any research.
  • Research and higher education are losing their credibility and value. Mostly due to a combination of all of the factors above and the mixing of credible and non-credible information in our media, higher education and research are struggling to maintain their credibility and value. If you need evidence of this, go no further than this article, Is Reddit going to replace college for people who can’t afford higher education?. How anyone could think that popularity voting is accurate and proper vetting at a similar level to the research vetting done in higher education  is shocking to me, but there are many that are arguing just that.

The solution here is not one thing, but a combination of many. We must choose experts to believe, whether it be higher education or otherwise; we must hold those experts in high regard, we must hold those experts to the highest ethical standards, we must take the time to understand and explain the research process and where we are in it, we must be open to evidence that challenges our beliefs, and we must value those who have the expertise. How we do that, however, is the question we must now choose to answer.

The Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective, Part 1: We Stopped Listening to the Other Side

Intro

I think almost all of us can agree that America is extremely polarized right now. The middle, the bipartisan, the moderate, whatever you choose to call it, is either gone or silenced. In the Polarization of America, a Communication Perspective parts 1 and 2, I’d like to add two of my thoughts on why we, in America, are experiencing an extreme polarization.

A couple of disclaimers:

  • My expertise is communications and marketing only. I also recognize that my expertise is limited and that there are people with much greater expertise than I in these fields.
  • If you read into any of this as leaning politically in one way or the other, you are reading something into it that I didn’t put there.
  • I believe, like most large-scale societal issues, that there isn’t one answer or two answers. There are a lot of contributing factors. Again, this is limited to my thoughts based on communications and marketing only. Other subject matter experts will have differing theories and views. I encourage them to share them as well.
  • I do not claim to have the right answers to the concerns I bring up. I offer my best at a solution and hope, by publishing this, that together we can come up with the right solution.

Part 1: We Stopped Listening to the Other Side

A couple of years ago for one of my masters courses, we listened to an audio interview of Jaron Lanier where he shares his views on how the Digital Age is changing our world. Part of that interview focused on his essay on Digital Maoism. And, part of this essay focuses on the hive mind, which is “a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force.”

The hive mind has many facets, but the part that I think is shaping the polarity of America is how the Internet became an easy way to not have to listen to any viewpoints that didn’t agree with our own. Basically, we can now go to our “hives” without ever seeing or hearing something that is counter to the thinking of our hive.

True, in America, we had this ability prior to the Internet. You could choose to walk past the book in the library that didn’t agree with your way of thinking or refill your snacks while the TV reporter gave the opposing political expert his or her air time. With the Internet, however, you don’t have to “walk past” the other side(s) or try to tune them out. Instead, you can go directly to your side. The Internet made it much easier to only hear the viewpoints that you agree with and, more importantly, not listen to any opposing viewpoints.

One man speaking, another rolling his eyes.
This photo is intentionally not from the U.S., but is a great illustration of my point. The man does not look like he agrees with the other man at all, but at least he’s there, listening, instead of choosing to avoid information. Or maybe there’s just something REALLY interesting on the ceiling. Photo from Flickr: Direitos Urbanos

Our tendency to avoid information that is counter to what we believe to be true is well-documented in Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Whenever we face information that does not agree with information we have in some way, we must resolve the dispute in our head. Although there are a variety of ways to do this, a popular way is to avoid information that challenges our currently held beliefs and that is what we can do by never going to an opposing viewpoint’s website and, instead, go directly to only those that agree with us.

But what about the biased media? Fox News and MSNBC to name two? True, they don’t have opposing viewpoints on there, but my thought here is that they adapted based on the Internet hive mindset. Many news organizations did and still do invite a variety of viewpoints to chime-in on issues. But, since the Internet became popular and people got used to not having to listen to the other side, many of the news organizations adapted to meet their viewers’ new preferences of not listening to point-counterpoint.

So what’s the solution? Personally, I try to avoid biased sources of information and/or balance them by openly listening to the opposing side(s). I’ll admit though, it’s very difficult to do and I’m sure I still approach the opposing side’s arguments with my own biases as a defense. However, from an overall societal standpoint, I’m unsure. Perhaps someone with a historical background has some thoughts on how societies have overcome similar polarization in the past.The best I can come up with is that it would have to be a conscious, cultural change; we would need to become a society that values open, respectful debate again.