How to construct an elegant, compelling, flowing insight story

The art of creating an engaging insight story pivots around understanding the role of structure. A coherent structure sets the context, drives the flow of your argument, organises ideas into categories and makes it easier for the audience to understand your message. But structure is a funny thing. When a sound structure is in place you do not notice it: you take it for granted. But when there is a lack of structure, this creates a disconnect which can irritate the audience.

In this blog we provide six tips on how to create an overall architecture that will drive the flow of your story – a structure that arcs from your introduction through to a conclusion. The goal is a structure that takes the audience on a journey (as in a film or play) and, at different points in the story, creates lean-in moments where you strike a powerful emotional chord.

An illustration of the power of structure can be found in Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. This speech has a distinct architecture. First, he sets up a challenge – that is the black community in the US are being treated unfairly. Then he moves on to discuss a solution – the arrival of the Civil Rights movement campaigning for equality. He then has a call to action, which he brilliantly articulates through his compelling I have a dream theme.

Tip One: Do not default to creating a building block presentation – integrate the evidence and attack the business question

Let’s start by explaining an absolute no-no when it comes to structuring an insight presentation! This is something you should never do if you are seeking to create a flowing narrative. Do not fall into the habit of creating a presentation that is just blocks of evidence drawn from the phases of your own research process.

This building block approach is the way many of us begin to assemble our evidence. But your final structure must go beyond simply presenting isolated blocks of evidence with only a tenuous link to some form of conclusion.

You need a structure that integrates the evidence, creating a flowing story that holds the audience’s attention. Build an attacking narrative that integrates all the evidence into a compelling story. It takes them on a journey that leads them towards the decisions that need to be taken. Your narrative will keep the audience engaged as you work through how you will resolve the challenge, tension or dilemma underpinning the business question.

Tip Two: Familiarise yourself with how linear and nonlinear story structures work in different business scenarios

One fundamental decision to make is whether you will use a linear or nonlinear structure. A popular approach is to select from a range of linear structures that take the audience on a journey that leads to a resolution. This is a tried and tested structure that appeals to people who have an innate interest in wanting to find out what happens next. For instance, Steve Jobs’ go-to structure was setting up a problem, then to providing a solution, followed by a call to action.

An alternative structure is a nonlinear approach. One illustration would be the high-level concept approach. Here there is a central idea sitting at the heart of the presentation. You then branch out to address different perspectives and angles that feed off of this central idea. For example, the core concept could be the entrepreneurial mindset. The presentation has at its centre the defining characteristics of entrepreneurial behaviour and then looks at different angles and perspectives around this core idea.

One specific tip is to look at successful speakers giving Ted Talks or YouTube presentations. Spend some time working out the structure behind the way these speakers have presented their ideas.

Tip Three: Look for opportunities to use powerful story substructures to support your overarching structure

There are a number of different substructures that, although not strong enough to be the basis of your core presentation structure, can have a role to play within your main structure to help you make points in an impactful way.

A couple of ideas from DVL Smith’s Story Tool training programme are substructures like the Time Machine. This substructure paints a picture of what the future would look like if stakeholders decided to follow a particular course of action. This can provide a kind of springboard into the future and illustrates the likely outcome of the decision.

Another substructure example is the Parallel Universe. This substructure allows you to review – in parallel – the implications of going forward with alternative or competing business scenarios.

Tip Four: Use visual displayed thinking – storyboarding – to shape the optimum structure

The storyboarding technique – using Post-It Notes – can be extremely effective in helping to get your structure right. It works like this:

Think it: Write on a Post-It Note each story point you wish to make.

See it: Pin up the Post-It Notes. Then talk yourself through how the story flows.

Do it: Play around with your initial running order until you feel comfortable with the flow.

This technique allows you to experiment with different structures, substructures and ordering techniques to see how they might work together in the most fluent way.

Tip Five: Apply the Rule of Three to each slide: ensure your headline, visuals and evidence work together

Once your overall structure is working well, begin to think about how this will work on an individual, slide-by-slide basis. Applying the Rule of Three here will help – you should have an active headline, a powerful image (ideally a visual metaphor) and a piece of killer evidence.

By an active headline we mean one that will tell the story of the slide – not just passive descriptive words that do not tell us anything.

Passive headline: Levels of participation in sport in the UK 2012 to 2019.

Active headline: Participation in UK sport has fallen since the 2012 Olympics.

A memorable image massively improves the chances of your message registering with the audience. There is a much higher chance that it will be remembered if you are able to have a metaphor for what you are trying to say.

Finally, you need to make sure that you only focus on the killer evidence. A key principle for a lot of great insight storytellers is that they tell their story using only the most relevant evidence. (Most stories can be told using only 20% of the available data.)

Tip Six: Pick a horse and ride it

One final tip, when it comes to finding a winning structure, is to know when to stop experimenting. There is rarely just one right structure. So, you must eventually settle on one – then stick to it. You will reach a point where there will be diminishing returns with further experimentation. You need to pick a horse and ride it: select a structure, stay with this and make this structure work.

We hope you have found these tips helpful. There are more ideas and tips on structuring an insight story in The High Performance Customer Insight Professional, how to make sense of the evidence, build the story and turn insights into action  by DVL Smith, now available on Amazon.

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