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Let Me Tell You a Story…

Why do we think we have to be storytellers? There are three reasons, none of them very good.

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By Dr. Stephen Needel

A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar…. No wait, that’s a joke, not a story. Back in the day, we were all encouraged to start our research presentations with a joke to endear ourselves to the audience. We were also told, if we were particularly nervous about presenting, that we should imagine our audience sitting in their underwear. Neither piece of advice was very good, but apparently it worked for some people.

Nowadays, a conference doesn’t go by that we aren’t told that we’re not doing our job as researchers if we don’t tell a story. Here’s the poor researcher who’s been beat up in the blogs for not knowing enough and not doing enough and not being focused enough, and now, on top of that, you’ve got to be a great storyteller too! Let me tell you, storytellers are not a dime a dozen (for my British friends, that’s sixpence a dozen – there you go, Ray). Anyone who’s listened to my wife try to tell a story will know that this is not a native skill, and 32 years of marriage suggests it’s not necessarily a teachable skill. Why do we think we have to be storytellers? There are three reasons, none of them very good.

First, we’ve been told for years, mostly in surveys of marketers (that are of questionable quality, both the surveys and the marketers) that we are not being as impactful as we could be and that research presentations are boring. This is hard to argue with – we’ve all sat through some terribly painful hour-long data presentations. It does not follow that telling stories solves this problem. What does follow is that we have to do better presentations. I’d like to think the days of 200 charts of data are over, but I know that’s not true. I just finished a study where I had a nice, compact, 30-page deck that focused on the answer to a very specific question. The client’s reaction? They wanted to see a bunch of other numbers charted, none of them relevant to the research issue. So let’s not always blame the researcher for long, boring decks. Make it short, sweet, and keep to the point.

Second, some have glommed on to psychological and neurobiological research that suggests all kinds of good things happen when you hear a story. There’s oxytocin release, enervation of larger percentages of the brain, better retention, and many other good things. The research I’ve seen, though, has two components that we don’t normally encounter when we’re doing research presentations. Typically, the stories told in these studies are “good”, in that they are engaging and usually have a happy ending. Also typically, the study’s audience is not interested, a priori, in the outcome of the story.  When you have a negative story to tell, making it cute and fluffy is not going to make it any more palatable. Our audiences should be vitally interested in the outcome of the research – they should need much less in the way of a story to comprehend what we found. You’ve got a group waiting to hear what you have to say – don’t beat around the bush, tell them what they need to know.

This brings us to the third reason we think we need to tell stories – researchers think our audience is dumb. Sure, we’ve all run into some people and wondered how they possibly got into the positions they are in, but for the most part, our audience is pretty good at what they do. What they are not good at is what we do, and they are never going to be that good at what we do. The sooner we learn that, the happier we will all be. By the time we get to presenting the results of the study, everyone in the room should have heard about the study, agreed to the sample and the methodology, and, in my smarter clients, agreed to what we’re going to do with the results. Leave out the [gory] details of this stuff when presenting – stick it in the deck but don’t present it. To the audience – you have better things to do than discuss this stuff in a management presentation.

Is there room for storytelling? Of course there is. I’ve seen some wonderful stuff from Niels Schillewaert at InSites Consulting and Fiona Blades at MESH using video to convey ideas that data tables would never communicate. Their work is particularly potent when they are trying to convey what consumers are thinking and the videos they use are powerful in driving a shift in organizational perspective. That said, much of our research is more focused, looking at the potential for a set of marketing ideas to drive behavioral change. In that case, it’s not storytelling, it’s not harmonizing (as someone recently claimed on LinkedIn as the next stage of evolution), it’s keeping it short, simple, logical, and focused on the answer.

Now, about that priest, the rabbi and the minister…

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14 Responses to “Let Me Tell You a Story…”

  1. Jim Berling says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 8:57 am

    Steve let me join your bandwagon that there is a time and place for storytelling. Not every research deck needs to be a storytelling deck. Sometimes a dashboard, scorecard or a more traditional research deck is what the decision maker really needs. In fact, my first recommendation is not to deliver any report at all. We should strive to partner with the decision maker in a working session to help them determine what action to take based on the data from the research. If we are not able to join them in a workshop then the next best thing may be a report of some kind. What is the best type of report? Ask your decision maker. The next time you deliver a report watch and see what information is being used or repackaged for their end purpose, or act really crazy and ask what data was most useful and how you could better package the information next time. After a few iterations you will be delivering the information and data in the best way possible, which just might be a storytelling telling deck.
    Did I ever tell you the joke about the researcher, the product developer and the marketer ….

  2. Ray Poynter says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 9:06 am

    It is always nice to get a chance to disagree with Steve Needel as all too often we are in agreement. Luckily this is just such an opportunity!

    Steve, I think you are wrong inasmuch as:
    1) I think your description of story and storytelling is wrong
    2) I think your reasons for why storytelling has become popular are wrong
    3) I think you descriptions of why storytelling works are wrong (or rather that you have missed out why it works and substituted in 3 straw men)

    Let me share a very short version of my take on this topic.

    Story and message are to me largely interchangeable, they refer to a coherent idea that emerges from analysing data through the prism of the client’s needs.

    Storytelling, in the context of market research simply means having a story/message, telling it in way that is effective through devices such as narrative theme. (BTW Steve I note that your attack on storytelling uses storytelling devices, start with the ice-break (the non-joke), say something provocative, back it up with 3 points (very popular device the 3 points), and link back to the ice-break to signal that the story has reached its proper end 🙂

    Stories and storytelling have emerged partly from a general social trend away from lists. dates, facts etc and more towards meaning – compare history books today with when we were at school, indeed compare physics books from both periods. The other key driver has been that the people paying for the product have asked for it. I have at various times conducted research with clients about who they prefer as presenters, why they prefer them and so on. The main reason that storytellers seem to be the most mentioned is that their material has more impact on senior managers and is more likely to be implemented. Insight managers tell me it is ever harder to get senior people to even attend the debrief, knowing that it is going to be an Andy Dexter, Fiona Blades or John Kearon makes a difference. The senior team know that it is less likely to be boring and it is going to be likely to offer advice rather than information.

    I have been running a series of workshops on finding and communicating the story in the data and in the F2F events I typically get people to say why stories are important – amongst the best answers I have had from clients include: ‘makes the key results more memorable’, ‘makes it easier to communicate the essential points around the business’, and best of all ‘shows that the agency understands our business and the way the data can help’.

    Sometimes clients want just data, that is fine, they are the people paying the money.

    And finally Steve, I think you are being a bit disingenuous, I have seen you present at numerous conferences, you are a storyteller, you have a clear message to convey, you organise your material in a way that builds from a starting point to an end point, you use plenty of narrative devices (like self-deprecatory humour and references to events in your life) to deliver a flow that keeps the audience with you, you exclude data that simply repeats the same point, and you try to focus on the key message.

  3. Steve Needel says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 9:21 am

    @Jim – thanks. More and more we are writing two decks. The first is the research deck, which serves us in the work session and as a more detailed record of the results. Then the second is the management deck, which is always much shorter – some of mine have been ten PowerPoint pages or so, that says, “Here’s what we studied”, a one-pager on how we did it, and “Here’s what we found”, where the last is very focused on decision-making metrics.

  4. Steve Needel says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 9:30 am

    @Ray – gee, Ray, I’ve never been called disingenuous, especially by someone as illustrious as you! But then I can’t fool you. Of course I tell stories. Every good researcher I’ve ever met is a good storyteller, although not all can do it in a group presentation. The point I really want to make is that there are people in our industry who, I believe, however benignly, are putting the storytelling aspect of a project ahead of doing good research; if you tell a great story, then maybe nobody will notice how weak the data is or how shoddily it was collected. On the other side, there’s a pressure being applied to researchers who are not the Kearons and Blades and Poynters of the world to meet these standards. We don’t need more pressure to be great storytellers – we are already being told we’re not meeting the needs of our management in every other Linkedin post. We can, however, be simple and logical and focused in our write-ups.

  5. Ray Poynter says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 10:03 am

    Hi Steve, if you had really wanted to pick on storytelling I would have suggested the power transfer that storytelling implies. A good story can make good findings much more likely to be actioned. However, storytelling can also make bad analyses more likely to be believed. Two key elements of storytelling are to remove unnecessary elements and to make the narrative convincing. But, if I remove data that is unnecessary to my story, I make it hard for you to see an alternative story in the data.

    The endpoint of the storytelling moral is the infographic. A well constructed infographic can make a memorable case that can even become a meme. But an infographic removes from the reader almost any ability to challenge the story.

    For this reason I am happy to present information via storytelling and infographics, when requested, but I much prefer to receive the data AND the story, and if I have to pick one, I tend to pick the data 🙂

  6. Jim Berling says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 10:43 am

    Ray and Steve – I love to talk storytelling, report writing and even infographics. I think we all three are in agreement that good storytelling can help persuade decision makers to take action. If done well it will focus the attention on the “So What” does this mean and the “Now What” do I need to do. When working with clients from across a wide range of industries on Storytelling techniques I tell them that this is one of the most difficult topics to teach. You really are teaching people how to think and package information in a meaningful way which is totally dependent on the target audience, the information you are presenting and the decision your clients are trying to make. One thing I like to challenge them about their current storytelling decks, is to ask them who are the characters in their story? Good stories have great characters and the characters in most of our situations should be the end customers. In some industries like Healthcare it could be the patient, caregiver or even the physician as the character in the story. Good storytelling should build on the trials and tribulations of these customers and then focus it back on how the organization can help resolve the situation at hand. There is not one thing you can do to tell a great story it is the 20 or so little things we do that makes something into a great story.
    No matter what your take is on storytelling, I do believe we need to move away from the old research decks which are modeled after academia research papers and begin to shift the formats into whatever best fits the needs of the decision maker. Be creative, have fun and deliver something that you would want to read.

  7. Ellen Woods says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 11:05 am

    It seems like the first discussion on this topic happened back in the mid 2000s when the lines between research and advertising started to blur. There seems to be a big difference between story telling and telling a story (the former of which warranted a swat as a child) but the real issue is more about how the data is framed.

    All of us have had brilliant, stupid, superficial and analytic clients who both use and react to data differently. However, the tendency has been to shy away from the meaning of the results and focus on the meaning of the data.

    Many researchers prefer not to know the context of the data but instead focus on the validity within the survey treatment. They leave the interpretation to the client with predictably bad results. We use to be an industry that focused on results and somehow became an industry that focused on questions. That led to a lot of data files that sat on shelves and a lot of research that never reached its potential.

    It’s not enough to tell a story with the data that doesn’t add contextual value to a business question and it is certainly not a good idea to use tools for storytelling that end with the data set. While some researchers may want only the data in context, the danger there is that the data in situ looks nothing like the isolated data response. A good case in point is political polling or even the lack of efficacy in trackers that use traditional methods that often run weeks behind real time reporting. The data is good and the real time reporting is accurate but they don’t match up.

    When I work with clients these days, the construction of the studies are very different from the past. We ask less questions on the survey because we have more background on the positioning. We spend more time understanding what drives the business question and ask shorter surveys that can fit into a larger picture. The story should be about informing and the data analysis should be about support of the interpretation, two different things.

    If a client just wants data, then there is no story, it is theirs to tell.

  8. Nick Tortorello says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 11:41 am

    I have never been one to jump on new fads or change my ways unless it is a clear improvement. As someone who has been in the survey research business over 40 years and seen many changes, I can tell you one truth; which is reporting data or story-telling can equally be boring. Whether reporting numbers or telling stories it is important to be both relevant, entertaining and to tell the client something new and insightful. It doesn’t matter much how you do the reporting of the data as long as you answer the client’s problems or issues and do it in a way which gets the client to focus, understand the findings, and at least listen to the conclusions and recommendations. Today, I often bring in data and stories, from other sources including traditional media and digital to surround the data I collected on the survey. This makes the story more timely, relevant, and insightful for the client.

  9. Kevin Gray says:

    March 1st, 2016 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks for sticking your neck out, Steve, and challenging the orthodoxy. Again.

    My experience may be atypical but when I’ve presented research findings and attended presentations done by colleagues, the audience has nearly always been engaged from the very start. This is research they have commissioned and paid for and they do not need to be motivated to pay attention. These are serious events that will impact on decisions, the bottom line as well as corporate ind interpersonal politics. Some clients are more detail or methodologically-oriented than others, but they want to know our recommendations and our reasoning. They don’t need 400 PPT slides and seldom ever have. We need to be coherent and avoid unnecessary detail and discussions, but we’re not in the movie business.

    Sales pitches are another matter and another topic.

  10. joel rubinson says:

    March 2nd, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    Steve’s contrarian points of view are the industry’s reality check! Thanks for being bold enough to express these ideas!. I have to point out that it was somewhat humorous to me that Ray vehemently disagreed with you in a long response that had no story at all to it! I heard someone from Procter describe a story as as fact plus an emotion. I liked that, and I assume it’s the emotion that makes the fact unforgettable. So maybe the idea is to deliver facts in unforgettable ways and a story is one way, only one though to do it. another is Mythbusting. You don’t need a story to tell people they have something completely wrong and then prove it.

  11. Kristin Luck says:

    April 8th, 2016 at 8:30 pm

    Joel, I hardly think Ray was suggesting that EVERY piece of writing/dialogue has to be in the form of a story….keep it in perspective. Having sat through more than a few snoozer data presentations over the past 20 years, I question anyone who thinks storytelling is a bad skill to develop. That said, I agree with Steve that some folks are just not blessed with this skill…and try as they might, likely won’t develop it. And now I’m off to prepare for the ESOMAR workshop I’m hosting on June 7….on storytelling. I hope to see you all there.

  12. Wake Me Up When the Data is Over 4 Storytelling Tips for Turning Insights Into Impact | RW Connect says:

    May 9th, 2016 at 5:09 am

    […] no one will act on it and no change will occur.” On the other side of the debate, Steve Needel recently blogged on Greenbook that researchers think we need to tell stories because we “think our audience is […]

  13. Werat Blog says:

    August 20th, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    I Recently Collected An Assortment

    […] all kinds of good things happen when you hear a story. There’s oxytocin releas […]

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