A solution to the increasing volume and complexity of research reporting is to increase our storytelling skills. Here are 10 useful guidelines.

Storytelling has recently become a hot topic in business circles. One reason for this is the sheer explosion of the amount of information that must be processed by organizations and communicated to their various stakeholders. So how should business people communicate all this information?

Market researchers, before the age of the PC and projector, used to communicate by only two means. One was to physically get up, shuffle papers and present a lecture to the client. The second was to present a written report. We were famous for them, and market research firms are still criticized for delivering doorstopper reports that end up in the bottom drawer of the client’s desk.

It was like this from the early decades of the 20th-century when pioneer Charles Parlin would submit reports hundreds of pages long, right through to the 1980s, when computers and PowerPoint began to change the way we told our stories to clients.

At first, the use of visuals and PowerPoint was an exciting new thing for market researchers. The medium suited our use of statistical charts, though most senior professionals will remember the heady days when assistants would come charging into their office saying “look at this” and show how they’d used clipart to help deliver the visual metaphor to whatever was going on inside the data. Fortunately, the fad of adding whoosh sound effects passed quickly.

But did it lead to better storytelling? Not really. Over time, market research slide decks turned into gargantuan productions showing slide after slide of pies and bars, commoditizing a lot of market research. Senior researchers may deny this, but many of their staff gauge a day’s success by the number of slides they have produced. Presentations are described and measured by being a deck and 60 or being a major 120+ kind of presentation. Whole MR organizations are structured around the production and delivery of these slide decks.

This is a tragedy. Technology has led us to focus more on presenting greater volumes of supporting statistical evidence rather than the quality of insight delivered. With the amount of data increasing exponentially, the problem is only getting worse.

Volume is not the only issue. The typical insights we deliver in 2014 are surely deeper and more complex than the insights delivered 20 or 30 years ago. I remember joining a very good market research firm in the 1990s and discovering in the bowels of the filing room a set of 1970s political polling reports. The charts were rudimentary and hand drawn. The reports were basic, without segmentation work, or any kind of underlying driver analysis. There was nothing except simple descriptive statistics.

Today, statistical analysis may be quite advanced and require some explanation in order for the clients to understand how we have reached our conclusions. Researchers may also be dealing with several streams of data, including sales data, consumer survey data, and verbatim feedback collected by the client’s own call center. These various rivers of information may be compiled into one particularly rich report that goes beyond descriptive statistics and into the world of strategic thinking or what-if modelling.

At this point, our reports may get bogged down not just in sheer volume, but complexity as well. The solution to this growing problem is surely not “the same, but more of it.” We require a step-change in our reporting style, and I’m not alone in arguing that we need to shift from evidence-based reporting toward a storytelling emphasis.

My own uncle first alerted me to this problem back in the 1990s when he was an engineer in charge of major hydro projects worldwide. Montreal-based Uncle Rod told me a true story about how he had received an urgent phone call from Hugo Chavez, then-leader of Venezuela. The President wanted help to decipher a huge report about where to build a major hydro dam. The report had been put together by acknowledged experts in hydro construction and civil engineering. They considered the financial, engineering, geo-technical and social costs attached to each option. In short, the report , which was hundreds of pages long, set out the up-and-downsides of two competing locations. My uncle explained to the President that the authors of the report had practically written the book on these kinds of complex decisions. “That’s the problem!” exclaimed Chavez, “They wrote a book. All I want is the answer!”

My uncle told me the story to impart two lessons. First he wanted to show me that even with billion-dollar decisions such as hydro projects (the Venezuelan project is one of the 10 biggest in the world), one can get too bogged down in decimal points. To paraphrase those hundreds of pages of expertise, the choice between Location A and Location B was about 50-50. In the end, the experts should have had the courage to put it in those simple terms. The second point was that the report was too big and too technical for the audience. Hugo Chavez was no fool, but neither was he a qualified engineer. As he said, all he wanted was to make a decision.

Market researchers think long and hard about the engagement level of respondents to the surveys we conduct. We are fully aware in questionnaire construction that we must keep things simple, brief, easily understood and engaging. At the same time many of us fail to think of our reporting along these same terms. Why do we need to show page after page of pie charts? What is the benefit of making a deck 90 slides long? What processes do we implement to boil down all our information into one easily understood story that passes the Hugo Chavez test?

Here is where storytelling technique becomes a useful tool in the armory of the professional market researcher. Many organizations instill presentation skills by giving younger researchers practice internally and then in front of clients in the process of sharing decks of PowerPoint slides, but this training process only covers half the story. We get very good at presenting, but the stories we present are underdeveloped or dull and overcomplicated.

Yet stories are an elegant solution to the problem of too much information. Humans are wired to process stories and understand them. Stories act as a kind of cognitive coathanger on which we can drape emotions, characters as well as the sense of actions and consequences that are the hallmark of human dramas.

Even a 4-year-old can hear the story of Little Red Riding Hood and gasp in the knowledge that Grandma’s house is now occupied by a wolf. In doing so, that 4-year-old is handling irony, and processing a moral universe that is in fact quite complicated. I doubt if a deck of 30 PowerPoint slides showing pie charts (and various KPIs) of right and wrong could impart the same level of wisdom. Aesop’s fables are another example of simple stories being able to impart rich life lessons.

And get this. A pre-schooler may not have the mathematical skills to interpret statistical charts, but even at the age of five they have the intellectual horsepower to comprehend the complexities and film grammar of a two-hour movie. The storytelling techniques of moviemaking should in fact package up the rich and complicated story that comes out of our market research work.

So what are the basics of filmmaking? What storytelling techniques do script writers, directors and film editors use to keep us engaged for 15 gripping weeks of a TV series such as Breaking Bad?

My own career as it turns out was blessed by the fact that I spent eight years in TV drama scripting. I was a script editor and writer for a host of shows predominantly soaps and cop dramas. This early career was entertaining and made for great dinner party conversations, though to be honest by the time I quit television in my early 30s I felt as if the experience had taken me down a professional cul-de-sac.

Not so, as it turned out. Over those eight years I was immersed in the world of storytelling and never realized what a universal skill-set this turned out to be – at least not until recently. So here’s my list of 10 techniques that are useful for market research storytelling.

  1. Include some back story. Before you launch into the main thrust of the report, recapture why the research was conducted in the first place. In a recent report for a bank, I recounted how during the observational research project we had witnessed a customer who attempted to open an account, but failed in their quest. It was a minor drama compared to the bigger questions we were going to explore in the report, but the incident illustrated how even small and incidental details contributed to a failure by the bank. For the sake of two minutes the bank forfeited the lifetime value of their customer. So I framed the report in terms of this incident. My subtitle for the report was: The two minutes that cost $50,000. That little back story framed the rest of the discussion: it set the theme.
  2. Develop good characters. Whether qualitative or quantitative, professional research standards require keeping respondents anonymous. For the sake of privacy this anonymity is a good thing, but it makes for lousy storytelling. This is why I love verbatim questions in my questionnaires. Without naming names, I can refer to the lady who complained about the coffee. Without divulging identifying details, I can refer to the grumpy old guy who just wouldn’t be pleased. In script writing, good characterization does not come out of demographic descriptions, it comes out of the decision-making by these characters. The Denzel Washington character in the train movie Unstoppable can be described demographically, but what makes him interesting and trustworthy are the decisions he makes along the way. The same in our data: Here is the lady who is prepared to pay a premium price! Over there, the customer who yearns for the old-style products. By introducing a few of these characters into our narrative we can explain later results quite simply. Instead of pointing to slide after slide of NPS scores, we may simply conclude that the new strategy got the thumbs down from Mr Grumpy. Everybody in the room gets it.
  3. Find suitable metaphors. Sometimes very complicated things can be explained simply with a good illustration. When asked to explain a factor analysis, I ask the audience to picture a new kitchen device called the un-blender. Where a blender turns diverse ingredients into gray statistical soup, an un-blender starts off with gray soup and after 30 seconds reveals the underlying ingredients: the factors that made up the soup. So far, my layman’s explanation of factor analysis has received warm reviews from all my clients including, uh oh, two Ph.D.s in statistics. Far better the metaphor that gives the gist than the full technical explanation.
  4. Structuring a story very carefully. One of the biggest challenges in film writing is to find a structure that produces a compelling tale. I quite like movies where two or three different strands either click together or collide just before the end of the movie. When you have 45 minutes to convey the rich discovery and the insights of a research project, you have the same time available to you as that available to the writers of an episode of CSI or Law & Order. In other words, you have room to introduce a couple of twists and turns as you piece together the blood stains, fingerprints and ballistic details required to reach a conclusion. Clients don’t mind if in the course of that presentation you show them a little bit about your forensic techniques. Your audience doesn’t mind seeing some of the story behind the main story. When we put together cop shows, the question of whodunit was always less interesting than the question of how to the cops find the guilty party. Market research follows the same narrative arc.
  5. Involve the audience. The audience of the drama can at any one moment be either up with the play, ahead of the play or behind the action. A skilled storyteller varies the pace so that sometimes the audience knows what is coming around the bend before our main character does. “Don’t go down the alley,” we yell at the hero. “There’s a bad guy waiting for you with a gun!” We love those moments, in moderation. If we get ahead of the protagonist too often, however, we begin to wonder why we are bothering to watch such a klutz. On the flip side, sometimes the hero does things and we don’t understand what he or she is up to. All will be revealed later! In TV storylining we refer to these as mysterioso moments. A few add spice to the drama and they allow the audience to revel in the intelligence of the protagonist. At other times within the movie, we are simply up with the play, neither ahead of it or behind the protagonist. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of control when it came to these three audience statuses. Within a heartbeat he could take us from being ahead of the action to being 12 steps behind. Just when we think we’ve figured everything out, we realize we are embroiled in something much bigger and more complicated! I’m not suggesting that market researchers go for that effect too often, but there is a lot to be said for having a kind of rhythm between the lean back and listen elements of the presentation and the lean forward moments in which the audience is challenged. Rhetorical questions, for example, signify a change in audience status.
  6. Remind the audience of what’s at stake. Don’t forget we are in the business of providing the information required for our clients to make important and sometimes very expensive decisions. If we work in FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), then perhaps we need to remind the client that, in this business, 80 percent of new product launches fail on average every year. One reason I used the story of the lost bank customer was that I wanted to reinforce that our modest project was not about measuring customer resources at the bank, but about mitigating risk of failure. I wanted that top of mind, so that even during the prosaic bar charts that I had to present, these were contextualized by what was at stake.
  7. Seek storytelling variety. When I worked on a cop show in Australia, we used to crank out two episodes every single week. As a group of storyliners, we recognized that cops only do a certain number of things. They examine crime scenes, they grill the bad guys, they chase suspects, and they observe from the anonymous grey van parked over the road. We boiled this down to eight modes of behavior, and we made sure that in any given episode of the cop show, each mode was used no more than once. In other words, we didn’t have a car chase followed by a foot chase, or have an interrogation scene followed later by another one. In market research reporting, we also have a shortlist of reporting modes. But this is why I get critical of seeing a deck of slides featuring a whole stream of descriptive charts, followed by yet another stream of descriptive charts. It is useful to break down our reports into chapters, and for each chapter to be fundamentally quite different than those previous. So after introducing what’s at stake in chapter one, I might present a series of descriptive slides in chapter two before searching for strategies using different techniques in chapters three and four. This keeps the storytelling interesting.
  8. Don’t be afraid to develop a theme of a deeper nature. Very often in market research we get to study a subject, but in the course of that study we ruminate on deeper material. We may be tracking the performance of the brand, but at the same time we are witnessing a shift in the zeitgeist. Development of such scenes in the movie or TV program adds a lot of richness to the storytelling. We are not just witnessing a story about a person; we are reflecting on the human condition. In my own presentations, I refer to these parts as the “I’ve been thinking” zone, and it may consist of a single photo, or a discussion about a relevant and fascinating book that I have been reading in conjunction with the research study. Sometimes these pauses in the narrative spark a much greater discussion than might be expected. Just as the film will resonate with the public because it seems to capture the mood of the audience, so a thematic discussion may capture and resonate with the mood of the client.
  9. Action is better than talk. Charts are stepping stones in a forward-moving narrative. Your headlines ought to be spiced up with verbs and your summary findings should lead to consequences. You’re building a case and working toward a verdict.
  10. Finally, good storytelling always has an authenticity. What made that terrific, nail-biting movie Captain Phillips so genuinely exciting was the absolute authenticity of the Somali pirates. It was brilliant casting. The director also allowed a degree of improvisation from his cast, so that the scenes were never over-polished or slick. Those actors didn’t look like they were acting; they were the real thing, lean and desperate. In market research reports, our statistics, charts, evidence and conclusions must all reek of similar authenticity. I quite frequently add an anecdote in my presentation about my own journey of doubt during the project, or about the difficulties of fieldwork. I will mention the fact that one respondent, a sleepless parent perhaps, completed the online survey at three o’clock in the morning, or that another respondent wrote 1200 words in response to a question about why they would recommend a product or service. I want the client to inhale and smell the reality of our work.

Storytelling places on us one demand that challenges many corporate style guides. Your firm may specify a certain tone, look and feel to its reports. I find storytelling by nature is more personal than that. A good story requires the emotional investment of the storyteller. In an age of more data than conventional reporting systems can deal with, storytelling demands that you lay your heart bare in the telling and sharing of the tale. Are you up for that?