Over the last couple of days I have been involved in a Twitter discussion about insight in market research, and beyond that to the role of storytelling and what communicating really means. I think that is really important that people providing market research really understand the difference between saying something and communicating it.
If something is communicated then to me that means it has been understood. It is not necessary for us to intend to convey something for it to be communicated. We might try to sound confident, but if we shake and confuse our words we will often communicate the fact we are nervous to our audience.
As a parent and a manager, I am familiar with the situation where I ask whether someone (a client or family member) knew about the plan before it happened. I am often informed that "I told them", or "I wrote to them", or more recently that "I Facebooked them". However, this means is that you have made an effort to give the recipient a chance to see/receive the message. It rarely means they did read, see, or clearly hear the message. Even more importantly, it rarely means that the recipient understood what was being conveyed in the terms the messenger intended.
In a good piece of communication an idea is in the mind of the sender, it goes through one or more methods of being transferred to the recipient, and ends up in the mind of the recipient. The key to communication is not about what is sent, it is about what is received. If the idea or piece of information does not end up in the mind of the recipient, it has not been communicated.
To me, an insight is a process whereby the recipient of the insight learns something that they can apply multiple times. To repeat the analogy I used in my Tweets' giving information to a client is like giving fish to a hungry man. Giving that man an insight is like teaching him to fish.
However, an insight is not something that we say, it is not something in a report, it is not something that is on a PowerPoint slide. An insight is something that the client did not previously know, but which they now know and which they can now use. So, an insight has to be communicated for it to be an insight.
Some of the tweets contended that storytelling was more important that insight, since storytelling brings the insights to life. But this was based on a view that insights are a collection of facts or information, a view I reject.
Storytelling is a useful method for researchers to use when they are trying to communicate insights or information. But, it is only a device, it is not the only method and it is not always the best method. The strengths of storytelling are twofold, firstly it can be a good way of getting a message across and secondly it can help the recipient remember the message (stories are more 'sticky' as Chip and Dan Heath point out in their book 'Made to Stick').
When is storytelling particularly effective in the communication process? I think storytelling is very strong when the material being communicated is hard to understand, or intrinsically boring, or hard to remember. The use of similes, metaphors, parables, and analogies can be a powerful way to get a message across.
By contrast, storytelling is less relevant when the message is in a field that is well understood by the recipient and where the information has high salience. For example, if a client is awaiting the results of their 90th concept test, the findings are often easy to convey without storytelling. A very good example of an alternative to storytelling is a dashboard. A client dashboard indicates key information about a wide range of data in a simple format - for anybody who thoroughly understands the data and the dashboard.