The days of data tables, 100-slide presentations and 300-page reports are done. Today, storytelling is the key to communicating research findings in ways that create impact. Storytelling is the best way to engage your audience and ensure that your message is received, understood, passed on and acted upon.
One challenge researchers have to address is using storytelling in the context of evidence-based decision making. To butcher the opening words of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a researcher in possession of good data must be in want of a story."
Using stories to bring data and customer intelligence to life is vastly different though from the everyday concept of a story. Research stories are not about fiction; they need to be grounded in truth. Their purpose isn’t merely to entertain. Indeed, storytelling in business aims to inform, induce and inspire action. They build a picture that is clear and unambiguous, shunning the time-shifting twists of Pulp Fiction and the ambiguity of The Matrix.
Research storytelling is not so much about stories as much as it is about the devices you use to tell your story. Great communicators use techniques drawn from storytelling to deliver a message that is going to be engaging, understood, accepted and acted on.
Here are four key storytelling devices that market researchers should employ:
How many presentations have you sat through where the presenters begin by saying who they are, describing their methodology or talking about the flow of their questionnaire? These presentations are very seldom interesting or memorable.
A better approach is to use a narrative flow—one that has a beginning, a middle and an end. Your material should flow from one element to another. It should paint a complete picture in a way that reinforces and embeds the story you want to tell.
Your narrative flow should highlight upcoming points, but it should also refer back to earlier points to show that the story is a cohesive one, with a single plot, and that it works as an entity.
The last twenty years of brain science have emphasized that emotions, not logic, motivate people. That’s why as a storyteller, you need to go beyond the facts. You need to convince people’s hearts, not just their minds.
Appealing to emotions is especially important when delivering bad news to clients or other stakeholders in your company. Bad news requires a narrative that takes the audience on a journey from believing one thing to accepting another. A message that is truly unwanted may take more than one session to be fully accepted. Numbers and data alone won’t persuade people that their initial assumption is wrong.
One effective way of appealing to your audience’s emotions is by sharing individual examples. Go beyond facts and data and humanize the points you want to make. If you have an insight community, for instance, one way of doing this is by going through past activities and compiling responses from customers to add color and context to your story. (In the Vision Critical Sparq platform, this can be accomplished with a feature called Stories.)
Other approaches include using your own personal experience and using images rather than numbers in your presentation deck.
Storytelling is all about performance. At the start, you need to grab the audience’s attention. Be provocative. Ask a compelling question. Play a video of an unhappy customer. The point is that you have to do something that commands attention and causes the audience to lean in.
Performance is just as important in the end. Your ending should be clear, and people should know what you think they should do next.
You may have 20 minutes to tell your story…perhaps even an hour. But when other people pass your story to others, they’ll boil it down to one or two minutes. That’s why your plot and message need to be designed to be robust in the face of this sort of simplification.
Keep this high-level, simple version of your plot in mind when creating the full story and reiterate it throughout. That way, when people in your audience share your story with others, they remember the main message you wanted to say.
The smartest researchers today know that their job isn’t just to generate data points and reports. Today, market research is a strategic source of customer intelligence that can help companies deliver better products, enhance their marketing strategy and improve the customer experience.
But for market researchers to be able to do that, they need to learn how to communicate effectively and transform data into a story. By leveraging storytelling devices, market researchers are in a much better position to shape business decisions and expand their influence in the organization.