January 9, 2013

Storytelling in Market Research comes of age

Not too long ago market researchers were being lambasted for presenting their research process rather than integrating the evidence into a compelling narrative that would ensure their message for senior decision-makers ‘sticks’.  It is an easy habit to get into: we are all initially much more comfortable presenting different ‘blocks’ of desk, qualitative and quantitative evidence, rather than taking the time to integrate all of the different pieces of evidence into a central message or story that frames the choices for the decision-maker.

The arc of a good story

The good news is that different skills development specialists, including DVL Smith with its own DVL Smith Story-builder Framework®, have come to the rescue by providing step by step guides on how to avoid falling into the trap of presenting one’s own research process, and instead develop a narrative with a clear message.

Today people realise the importance of structuring a story that ‘arcs’ through the presentation. A story is something with a theme that: instantly frames the overall tenor of the presentation for the audience; it will adopt one of a number of well-established structures for delivering the evidence; be embellished with the use of different imaginative substructures in order to get over key points of detail; and the icing on the cake will be to include into the presentation what has become known in the trade, as ‘personal storytelling episodes’. These provide the opportunity for the presenter to add their personality into the presentation by bringing the data alive by sharing particular stories about best practice in that market or product space.

Doubting Thomases

So far so good for the role of storytelling in market research.  But then enter stage left some critics of the use of the storytelling concept in the business setting. These critiques raise three issues.  Firstly, there is the view that storytelling – creating a compelling narrative works well if you are a Steve Jobs giving a keynote presentation, but works less well for the everyday rough and tumble of delivering a workaday market research presentation.

The second ‘objection’ is that storytelling doesn’t lend itself to highly data-centric evidence based presentations, where the emphasis is on doing detailed data analysis.  The gist of this criticism is that if you are ‘storytelling’ you could not have done a rigorous analysis of all of the data.  Storytelling is associated with fairy tales that float down from the muse, rather than being seen as the result of a story grounded out of hard data analysis.  This criticism implies we are ‘telling stories’ and no longer analysing data.

The third criticism of the use of storytelling in business gravitates around the view that we know from history certain ‘classic stories’ are no more than convenient fables, and therefore aligning market research with the ‘storytelling’ arguably brings the industry into disrepute because we should be in the truth.

One can see the point here.  For example, if we are to take the story of the little boats at famous Dunkirk evacuation of 340,000 men from the beaches of Dunkirk, the facts tell us that the lion share of the men were in fact evacuated by larger naval ships, and only around 7000 men actually made the trip across the channel in a little boats.  But it is in the interests of the storyteller, and the movie maker, to dramatize the amazingly brave role played by those fishermen and pleasure craft captains who went over in their small craft to rescue soldiers.  But if we wanted to take out a lesson from this history for the future about how to evacuate vast numbers of men from who are stranded on a beach, then the better lesson to learn would be to highlight the wisdom of the naval expert who decided to bring naval frigates alongside a groyne thereby allowing vast numbers of men to move quickly onto larger boats rather than to put out the call for a flotilla of little boats.

Stories grounded in the hard evidence

So some of the reservations about applying storytelling techniques in business are grounded in some common sense and reality.  But from my own perspective we would be foolish to allow these reservations to take us back to delivering boring totally data-centric presentations of our evidence-sessions that gravitate around our own process, rather than borrowing the techniques of good storytellers.  But the criticisms that have been raised do remind us of the importance of ensuring that our stories come into existence through the rigorous, detailed and grounded analysis of the hard facts and evidence.  The professional market researcher is a storyteller in the sense that they have analysed all of the data and established with integrity their story that reflects the hard facts.

My belief is that it is dangerous to start undercutting the importance of giving a fantastic presentation by arguing that market researchers with all their detail are a special case and should be allowed to revert to dumping data, with big storytelling style being reserved for presentations only for special occasions.  This is a slippery slope to mediocrity.  So even with low key presentations that are highly data-centric delivered to a small internal team, we at DVL Smith believe that such presentations would still benefit from applying some of the techniques from the world of storytelling.

Getting away from ‘away from’ language

And on the subject of the use of the term ‘storytelling’ somehow undercutting or undermining the integrity of the market research craft, I think we need to embrace the need for new language to be breathed into our industry. In NLP parlance market research is very ‘away from’ i.e. not positioned around the positive – but the negative. If we were to start the industry again we probably wouldn’t start explaining ourselves using terms such as margins of error, having different levels of confidence and suggesting that some things are significant but others are not, and attempting to explain to clients the difference between ‘validity’ (whether something is free from systematic bias) and ‘reliability’ (whether the study findings would be repeated if we did the study again). No we would try to explain these ideas with other more user friendly less ‘away from’ concepts. We would start again with a language maybe borrowed from the world of the law, and talk about evidence being directionally robust and so on. So storytelling may still have some Hollywood fairy-tale children’s story connotations, but I would suggest that we stay with the ‘storytelling’ nomenclature, rather than run the risk of being accused of going back to giving mind-numbingly boring 300 plus chart PowerPoint presentations that send everyone to sleep!

Storytelling comes full circle

So the DVL Smith view is that storytelling has come full circle. We started with the initial excitement of breathing new life into boring presentations by incorporating storytelling ideas from the world of drama and novels into business. We then have listened to erudite and intelligent critiques about the dangers of applying the storytelling concept in hard-nosed market research scenarios.  This takes us through to where we are now which I believe is – a situation in which we have a rounded, universally understood view of exactly what we mean when we talk about ‘storytelling in business’. Today when we talk about storytelling in market research we are talking about constructing compelling presentations that dip into the toolbag of storytelling principles, but that are always grounded in the hard supporting evidence and deployed to make sure the message is tailored to the audience in a way that will ‘stick’.

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