I had the privilege to Chair a fantastic MRS Storytelling Summit recently. I introduced the session by outlining the seven different eras through which insight storytelling has progressed since I first started providing training on the art of insight storytelling over 15 years ago.
The dark ages
I began by talking about the dark ages – the era when researchers had not yet grasped that the presentation should be about the audience not them. These were desperate days. Busy decision takers were forced to listen to a mind numbing procession of charts with serried rows of data presented to three decimal places.
The prevailing philosophy here was that the client had paid for these numbers so they should damn well sit through them to the bitter end.
The grudging storyteller era
We then moved to the grudging storyteller phase. We had started to recognise the power of the story in communicating and to see that, if we constructed our presentations as a flowing narrative, we stood a better chance of getting the audience’s attention. But in these early days, this was often done through gritted teeth.
Surely this was nothing to do with the hard-nosed market research presentations. Wasn’t this just for lovies, show-offs and divas.
The enlightenment era
In this enlightenment era we embraced the idea of bricolage, triangulation, and the holistic analysis of our growing data sources. Weaving everything together in an integrated way to tell a story was beginning to make sense.
Market researchers realised that they shouldn’t be presenting their own research process, but integrating the evidence by constructing attacking narratives that framed the decision choices and answered the business question.
The era of emotion and admissible evidence
We then recognised that in a straight choice between emotion and reason, emotion wins. We were moving forward and now accepted that we were, as market researchers, ‘admissible evidence’. Our views could sit alongside the formal evidence. So we started feeling comfortable with having a point of view and expressing what we thought in order to inspire our audience to take action.
The era of the rolling presentation
We began to realise that the world was now used to a rolling 24 hour news culture. It was less about a final show stopper end insight presentation. We needed to start thinking about how we communicated on a rolling basis – often in smaller sound bites. BombBomb videos in emails were part of the armoury
The era of the democratisation of insight storytelling
We were all getting pretty good at storytelling now. People now know that you don’t have to have the Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward gene to be a good insight storyteller.
Today, there are structures and frameworks available that everyone can draw on to take their storytelling up a notch. It’s encouraging to know that even David Bowie was happy to work with Brian Eno and use his Oblique Strategies card-based system in order to take his own natural creativity to the next level.
The era of creative risk taking with our storytelling
And this brings us to the last of my seven eras – the need for more creative risk taking with our storytelling. Going forward it will be creativity that will increasingly separate the winners from the losers.
And the importance of creativity couldn’t have been better highlighted than at the recent MRS Storytelling Summit. We were treated to some great creative ideas and techniques to give our insight storytelling that extra edge.
So I thought it would be helpful, to pose seven risk taking challenges that you might want to consider in keeping your storytelling fresh and different.
Are you prepared to take the risk of being a dramatist?
Today many researchers will be aware of the standard structures for telling an insight story – Situation/Complexity/Resolution and the Knowledge Pyramid structures. These are powerful, but is there a case to change the pace every now and again and go for a more radical and innovative overall architecture for your story?
Here we could learn from dramatists. Everyone will be aware of the standard beginning, middle and end approach using the act one, two and three format. But what was in Harold Pinter’s head when he decided on the structure for his play Betrayal? Here he decided to take some creative risks. He decided to break with tradition and start the play at the end of two people’s relationship and work back to the beginning.
The message here isn’t to start telling your story backwards, but you could change the pace by telling your story through the eyes of an individual customer – not just by presenting aggregate statistics. This Hero’s Tale technique really helps to get audience lean-in.
Or you might want to be more ambitious and go for the High Level Concept story structure. Identify the core unifying idea underpinning the research findings. Then be prepared to interact and take audience questions around this concept.
Would you take the risk of being a journalist?
We’ve probably all got the message that it’s best to tell your story using only 20% of the available data, but are we prepared to be as ruthless as world class journalists in cutting through to use only the minimum amount of evidence to drive home their storyline?
If a journalist was writing a piece on the need for greater gender equality, they would stay with the quite shocking statistic that, of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 companies, only 41 (8%) are women! They could tell their story around this single fact. In contrast, we as market researchers often feel the need to qualify everything with related contextual evidence that undercuts the central power of the message.
Would you take the risk of being a stand-up comic?
We know about the power of what we call Personal Storytelling Episodes in constructing a story. This is about providing your own take on events – being admissible evidence. Take some risks by making observations and putting something of yourself into the presentation.
This is something that stand-up comics know all about. They are always walking a fine line between making a personal observation that will resonate with the audience to get a laugh as opposed to saying something that will fall flat and make them look stupid in front of a large crowd.
So, how far will you go in the trade-off between just reporting the evidence and taking the risk of providing your personal take on what you think this means.
Nothing is more satisfying than when you take a risk and your audience says “Exactly yes, I’ve experienced that. This person knows what they’re talking about.” But the downside is that, if you call it wrong, you can end up in an embarrassing Bridget Jones moment!
Would you take the risk of being a copywriter?
Words have power. We need to tell our stories using attacking, active, engaging words and avoiding bland stock passive words. We’ve made good progress here. Gone are the days of slide titles like ‘A review of your company’s complaint procedures’. We are now much more likely to see a slide headline that tells the story, such as ‘You need to start treating your customers with more respect!’.
But should we be taking even more risk with our words. Here we can learn from great copywriters. They are aware of the power of conviction writing. Top copywriters go for a headline statement that gets over the essence of their point without feeling the need to put in qualifying weasel clauses that undercut its power.
This can be tricky for market researchers, because we have been brought up with the discipline of defining our terms, explaining the context, outlining the outlying mitigating circumstances and adding in all those qualifications and caveats! Are we prepared to take the big leap to powerful conviction writing in order to drive home our message? It is all about hitting the sweet spot between making a substantive evidence-based point and gaining attention. Ultimately this is a judgement call.
Would you take the risk of being a film director?
Most people now apply the Rule of Three in creating their slides. This tells us that we need an attacking headline, a powerful image, and a killer stat or quote on each slide. But, we’re now learning about the communications power of visual metaphors – something that Hollywood film directors know all about.
But as busy market researchers it is easy to get lazy and end up using stock images rather than seeking out a true visual metaphor. And if we do reach for a metaphor we need to go beyond the Titanic and the iceberg!
When it comes to mastering visual imagery I’m not saying we are always going to find Stephen King’s hand from the Carrie grave moment. But we do need to invest time in taking some risks in going for seriously powerful images.
Visuals are going to play a much bigger part in our game. Images stick in the memory. Most of us still remember the lone Chinese protester standing in front of the Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square, and what this symbolised.
Would you take the risk of being a politician?
We know that politicians get a bad rap. Many think of them as pursuing all sorts of Machiavellian agendas in pursuit of self-interest. But another take on politicians is that they know how to influence agendas, and engage in Realpolitik in order to make things happen for the greater good. So let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and think of them as individuals who know the importance of acting with purpose and intentionality to get things done.
So, as storytellers we need to push harder in our role as influencers and persuaders and more tenaciously follow through to ensure the right action is being taken.
So, what risks are you prepared to take to make sure that what you believe in actually happens? Are you prepared to employ some ‘nudge theory’ to help get people over the line in terms of the action you want them to take?
Are you prepared to take the risk of being a fortune teller?
Many will be aware of the old saying ‘Those who live by the crystal ball soon learn to eat ground glass!’ As market researchers, we are all aware of the dangers of positioning ourselves as fortune tellers. (I like to think of us as being more in the business of anticipating the accelerating present.) But, as storytellers, we need to paint a picture of what might be happening in the future. Again this involves being prepared to take some risks.
The good news is that there are some story techniques in the toolbag we can deploy to set up ‘future histories’. For example, there is the Parallel Tracks approach, comparing what the future would look like under two different sets of scenario assumptions. And would you be prepared to use the Time Machine storytelling technique where you cast forward and map out what things might look like is say five years’ time?
It’s now time to step up to the plate and be that insight storyteller who is what I call the ‘wide angle lens’ – someone who can connect everything together and map out what is most likely to happen in different scenarios going forward. This is what senior stakeholders are looking for in their insight storytellers.
All very scary stuff for some market researchers!
If you want to stay dangerous and take some risks then get in touch
I hope you’ve found this food for thought when it comes to staying edgy with your insight storytelling. We’ve all got the storytelling T-shirt now. We all know how to put together a basic story, but the challenge now is how to add that extra edge of creativity to really bring our stories alive? So I hope you found that this piece helpful.
At DVL Smith we have a range of coaching and live & online programmes to support you in your storytelling risk-taking. So do get in touch if you’d like us to put together some ideas on how we can help you and your team.