Have We Gone Too Far with Storytelling?


Storytelling in market research has been a hot topic for the last decade and continues to be widely debated. Most narratives focus around redefining the work we do (e.g. inspiring or in citing action), making sure our work has impact by framing around the key business issues (rather than the research questions), and focussing on delivering concise, flowing, and memorable presentations. Recently, though, there has been a backlash. Articles are being written that suggest we have gone too far away from our core area of expertise: the design, collection, and presentation of market research data. So what is the right balance we should strive for?

Let’s meet Kevin and Jane, two fictional archetypes who hold very different views. Kevin works for a traditional, established agency. He is the agency’s expert on sampling and advanced quantitative analysis. He believes that market research is a scientific discipline and his role is to objectively present the facts using the data. He understands that times have changed and his clients have less time, but he wants to make sure they understand how the data was collected so they can understand any potential bias. He is skilled at connecting the dots and drawing conclusions, but he wants to make sure that his clients see the data for themselves, as this is the key output from market research studies and he wants them to see clearly how he has reached his conclusions.

Jane has grown up in a boutique agency with a very charismatic leader. She is quite creative and enjoys solving her clients’ business issues. She believes that her presentation is her ‘product’ and it must be high impact. She believes a good client outcome is as much about her ability to persuade as it is about the raw data that was collected. She understands that research is a means to an end – it’s all about inspiring and driving change in an organisation. She loves learning from her boss, who is famous for her wonderfully concise and entertaining numberless (or using few numbers) quantitative presentations.

Recognise yourself in either of these archetypes? Firstly, neither archetype is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Both Kevin and Jane have qualities that would make them great market researchers. Clients will gravitate to either Kevin and Jane based on their own preferences, consciously or subconsciously. Researchers will gravitate to different agencies based on the preferred style of the agency. This conclusion allows the agency and the individual to incorporate those aspects of storytelling they feel most comfortable with and which fit with their own style.

However, I am not going to sit on the fence – all the great researchers I have worked with have been great storytellers. When starting your career, it is easier perhaps to hide behind the data, present more than is needed, and be tentative in reaching conclusions. Forming a strong and clear point of view and keeping ‘on story’ requires maturity, confidence, and bravery. Experience teaches you which client, project, and situation needs more data, and which less.

So how can you embrace and develop your inner storyteller? Here are a few short tips taken from our storytelling training:

  1. Start with the end in mind. It is essential that before you write your presentation you are clear on the two or three key messages you want your audience to retain. In practice, this means completing your analysis before you create your presentation or report document. A lot more time is spent on planning a good structure and less on creating slides (if you are doing this well you will need considerably fewer slides).
  2. Cater to different communication preferences. We all have preferences about how we like to communicate and receive information – some of us are more verbal, some more visual, and some more kinesthetic. We need to get beyond the usual focus on delivering rational facts and engage the emotions. Behavioural economics teaches us that people can relate more to the personal than the general. This means moving beyond just summarising the aggregated data to telling stories or anecdotes about individuals, or otherwise making the findings personal and individually relevant.
  3. Help your audience. If you are using PowerPoint, a good structure and great data visualisation is paramount. Order data around key business/marketing issues (not research questions). Charts highlight the key things to focus on and should not be overly busy. Everyone should reach the same inevitable conclusion from each slide.

Invest time in creating strong stories and presenting becomes a delight. Those skilled in the art of presenting usually rise to the top of our industry. As Ira Glass points out, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

Written by Craig Griffin, Founder and Chief Insight Officer at FUEL Research & Consulting