How to Turn Narrative Survey Responses into Data You Can Use

March 12, 2024

Maryfrances Porter

What are Narrative Responses?

I almost always recommend including open-ended questions at the end of surveys. This allows you to get some free-form, narrative responses from your clients.

These narrative responses can be rich and detailed, and can give you valuable, unexpected information.

My favorite open-ended questions are:

  • Please tell us one or two things you liked about….
  • Please tell us one or two things you would change about…
  • Please make any other comment you wish.

I also often like to include:

  • If you are comfortable, please provide a testimonial we can share with others.

The Benefits of Narrative Responses

All the other survey questions reflect how you define success and what you think is most important. I’m talking about the questions with response options (e.g., Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree). But what if your clients have different ideas about what is most important?

Maybe you don’t want to pre-define the response options. Maybe there are too many possibilities. For example: Please tell us about your favorite holiday tradition.

Maybe the response is something clients need to self-define. For example: Please tell us why you chose this experience.

Maybe you’re looking for thoughts or reflections, rather than categories of responses. For example: Please tell us one or two things you liked about today’s presentation.

Open-ended questions can also be a nice source for testimonials. BUT – do not get them confused! Narrative responses to open-ended questions can be used as testimonials, but statements given as testimonials are cannot be used as data.


The Drawbacks of Narrative Responses

The first drawback of narrative responses is that most people don’t like to answer them. They require time, thought, and actually writing. People who are trying to get through the survey quickly (i.e., most of them!) are going to skip these questions, or just write a tiny bit.

The second drawback is that once you have them, you have to figure out what to do with them!

Turning them into data you can use takes time. But, if you have the time, it’s often worth it!


Identifying and Graphing Themes

I always take the responses to each open-ended question and cut and paste them into Column A of an Excel worksheet.

First, I read through all the answers, noting themes to myself. Maybe making some notes on a scrap piece of paper.

Second, I start recording the themes of each response in Columns B, C, and D if needed. One response can have more than one theme.

Third, I go back to check my work and consolidate themes so I end up with a manageable number. I’m usually looking for fewer than 10 themes. Themes that only come up once or twice I often combine in an “Other” category.

Fourth, I count how many time each theme comes up and I graph that.

Fifth, I pick out some responses that are really good examples of the main themes.


Here’s an Example

The Open-ended Question
Please tell us one or two things you got from working with us.

The Narrative Responses
all good
Can’t name just one
how to change the AC filter, warmer house
I can get in my house easier with the ramp.
I feel much safer in my house, thank you
I really liked how you all helped me know when to call a roofer.
It was all good
New windows, cheaper electricity
safer bathroom
Thank you – I thought it was great
The hole in the floor is fixed

The Themes I Created

The Graph I Created

There you have it!  It takes a little time, but you can turn narrative responses into data you can use!


I’m so grateful for you.  Thank you for all you do!

– Maryfrances

Your ImpactStory™ Coach

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– Maryfrances

Your ImpactStory™ Coach

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By Published On: March 9th, 2024Categories: Blog - Powerful Data AnalysisComments Off on How to Turn Narrative Survey Responses into Data You Can Use