Monthly Archives: October 2014

Frequently asked questions that nobody asked, ever

How to Create an FAQ that Works

I have come to suspect that most “Frequently Asked Questions” were never asked by anyone. I’ve witnessed the creation of many FAQs, and I can recognize the results of the typical process:

People are sitting around a big table in a conference room, trying to look interested, 40 minutes into a meeting. Someone says:

“We need to have a page to point them to, if they have questions.”

A second person says

“What questions do they have?”

Just kidding. Nobody says that. The second person says something that amounts to

“What do we want to tell them? We can work backward from there, and contrive some questions that feature our favorite jargon—without ever actually having to speak to a potential user.”

Real questions come in, but nobody puts those in the FAQ, and maybe nobody updates the FAQ at all.

Or, worse: They update the FAQ with by copy-pasting everything that comes in, creating a dump of un-edited, un-indexed information. People have to read it top-to-bottom to see if anything looks similar to their own question. If they try to search, the oddities of phrasing and word choice mean that nothing matches, until they pick words that make everything match.

This “Find A Question” FAQ approach happens when the team (usually without a writer) says

“Punt! I don’t want to sort through all this information, creating structure, navigation, or indexing. I don’t want to categorize this, or consider where the answer might apply to a broader audience, or what audiences we have, or basically do anything more than set out a garbage can for people to dig through and try to cobble together an answer that nearly works from a pile of misfit pieces. We’re required to have support, so there! We’re done.”

That’s why many FAQs don’t work.

Here are some guidelines for making an FAQ that does work.

Translate it

Your FAQ needs to reflect the perspective and terms that are most familiar to your audience—not you or your experts. Say it out loud: “What’s it like for them?” Re-phrase questions and answers so that they are clearer, and include context if necessary. And, of course, address the questions that are really most common for your audience. If you’re starting with a new product, survey your likely audience for starter questions.

Shorten it

Imagine you’re a typical person looking for an answer. You see an FAQ. Is your question there? How do you know? You have to read it. Every question. As I’ve said, trying to search an FAQ for a term is always a fuzzy mess. What if there are 40 questions, and yours isn’t there? Anger. So I say an FAQ should only be the “10 most frequently asked questions.” It should be short and scan-able, like the “first line of defense” that catches the most common questions and lets other questions quickly move on to your support navigation menu. If you have more questions, at least break them into categories to guide users. But better yet:

Support it

An FAQ needs to be backed up by more complete structured support information, with effective navigation. Offering an FAQ as your only support is like giving people a map that onnly shows interstates. In fact, the “answers” in your FAQ should link to the appropriate topic in the support info, so that people can follow the breadcrumbs or other context links there to find related info. That also makes it easier to update the answer in one place later…

Update it

… because your answers will change. Or, they probably should. You should refine them as you learn more about your audience. You should also revise the questions in your FAQ if/as other questions come in more often. You should definitely check for and remove information that’s outdated. Outdated information is worse than no information.

To sum it up:
An FAQ is a communication tool, with a real live audience that may be halfway to frustrated when they get to the communication party. An FAQ can be an effective tool if it’s used effectively. It can also be a weak excuse for “support” that really wastes a lot of people’s tie and leaves you wondering “Why did everybody leave my communication party?”


… but enough about you. Let’s talk about me.

Tips to communicate with your audience

In the past 3 weeks, I said a lot about your audience, and what you need to do before you communicate with them. Specifically:

  1. Identify your audience
  2. Identify with your audience
  3. Connect with your audience
  4. Communicate with your audience

Sometimes, I think people want to start with “4.” But I covered those three up-front steps because “communicating with an audience” sounds active, but it’s really more responsive.

To communicate with your audience, you need to be responding to them, and you need to have a fresh understanding of who they are and how to identify and connect with them.

That you, you know what they want, and you can frame everything to meet those wants.

I hesitate to say you should meet their “needs.” People read what they want, and “need” might not factor into it. There’s plenty of information that people need, but don’t read. So one aspect of the creator’s role is often to plug the wants into the needs—to make ’em see and want what they need.

Now, for what you want to say…

If they’re looking for exactly what you have to say, it’s easier, but not a given. Connect to them as much as necessary, put things in their terms, and get them to what they want as quickly and clearly as possible.  Make lower-priority information available for reference, if needed.

If you’re trying to educate, convince, or call your audience to action in ways they weren’t seeking, then things get a little more complicated. That topic is too big to entirely cover in a blog, but here I want to give you an overview of how the three lead-in steps come together:

Make your points matter

For each major point you want to make, state it in a way that identifies with your audience. Why do they care? What need does it fulfill? What is the benefit for them? Can you give an example?

Even if you don’t use the example, it can help to keep it in mind as you write. Once you have all the dots (the points you want to make, stated in a way that identifies with the audience), it’s time to connect them.

Map your message

Look at all the points you want to make, and what your audience wants to read, and map it out. See where they relate to each other, and where you can create a path or paths that lead them to the best stuff.

This might be something like a content structure diagram for a technical writer, or a storyline for a copywriter. Either way, you want your information (your dots/points) to be as available as possible without derailing your audience’s connection. If you have existing audience data (like analysis of which pages are most popular on a site), make sure to consider it.

For shorter copywriting pieces, all of this is on a smaller scale, and it usually needs to lead to an offer or call to action. In that case, be sure to make that offer or action clear. Identifying with your audience does not mean putting the key offer/action in muddy, fuzzy, maybe-you-wanna terms. Clarify it. In a longer piece, close with a summary.

Here are some specific things to consider as you look for ways to make your information connect with what your audience wants.


Use links to give readers options for connecting to the important points you want to make. That way, you’re not interrupting another topic to state your point—but you can still make sure that a popular or high-traffic topic doubles as a point of access to information you want to share.


Think of ways to illustrate your information, so that it is more enticing for your audience, and so that you can visually put it in context with the information they’re seeking. You can also include it in the context of other popular information without breaking the linear text flow of that topic.


Are there ways you can re-frame a headline or header to broaden it so that it includes both what your audience is seeking most along with a key related point you want to make?

To sum up:

Remember: Communicate “with,” not “to.” Keep your Audience Avatar turned on as you add and edit content through each review. Prioritize the messages your audience wants and use that capital to work in anything you want to share.

Go back and test, with your Internal Audience Avatar, and with actual readers if possible, to see if you’ve successfully identified with and connected with your audience, and brought them through your main points.