Reporting vs Storytelling

In November 2014, Greenbook released a blog post related to an addendum study conducted among market research professionals about their latest market research study. This was done as an addition to the fall GRIT study, a regular study conducted by Greenbook to review the state of the market research industry, including responses from market research providers and clients. One of the items discovered by this addendum study showed that we are poor storytellers. What exactly does that mean?

First, the study

From the blog post:

4 in 5 research users stated that the research output was actionable and readily usable for their marketing teams. An overwhelming 92% reported their research projects generate insights worth sharing with their colleagues. Great job, right? Yet only 65% actually share the results of their research internally. So it seems there is a lot of unused potential when it comes to leveraging research internally. In fact, the research we conduct does not seem conducive to telling a good story and it is not the start of a conversation. The majority of researchers use PowerPoint reporting to present the research results: 86%. A mere 22% have an interactive workshop to discuss the research findings and less than 10% use creative reporting formats such as interactive videos or infographics.

So, per the study, 92% of us feel like our research has insights worth sharing, but we’re doing a woefully poor job of sharing those insights. But there is one line that keeps sticking out to me: “…the research we conduct does not seem conducive to telling a good story and it is not the start of a conversation.”

(Insert sound of the abrupt audio stop here.)

We don’t think our research is compelling, even though we think our research generates insights worth sharing? This is where I’ve been getting stuck. Perhaps we need to learn a bit from marketing, where the adage goes, “There are no boring products, only boring marketers.”

Reporting

Here is one theory I have about why we as market researchers might find our research insightful, yet not anything that would be conducive to being crafted into a story. I think we have become a little mired in reporting. When it comes do doing research, I’d bet most of us spend so much time and budget on the actual research that we find ourselves with little time and budget for reporting. That translates into throwing together some statistics to report out to interested stakeholders, rather than taking time to look for the story.

Reporting, by nature, is somewhat dull. When we hear we’re going to hear a report, we don’t expect a story. We expect numbers, charts, and straightforward facts. We don’t expect to really be moved by a report the way we expect to be moved by a story.

But reporting is important. We don’t want to lose the facts in the attempt to make things more interesting. Sometimes, the data simply says, “Status quo.” Other times, the data says, “Nothing to see here, move along.” But it seems that is only happening about 8% of the time. The other 92% of the time, we find an insight we want – or even need – to share.

Storytelling

So how can we move from basic reporting to storytelling? After all, stories are 22 times more memorable than facts alone. So if we want to move our stakeholders to action – and even listen to the facts – we would do well to harness the power of a story.

  • Step back. The first step seems to be to take a step back from the data and look at the bigger picture. Inevitably, our clients have come to use with a question they want to have answered, but our research has unearthed information that goes beyond that question, and perhaps even raises issues or information that we feel the client needs to hear. If you know your clients’ business well enough, such as knowing their business goals and general business direction, you can take a step back and look at the bigger picture for your client. Then take another step back and look across the industry to see what trends and other information might be relevant to the insights you’ve found in the data.
  • Use qualitative information. There is a lot of buzz around qualitative research methodology, and for good reason. I think we’ve heard examples of studies seeming to say one thing, but qualitative research clarifying or modifying the quantitative data to paint a different picture. Qualitative goes beyond just asking open-ended text questions, though. It also includes social media listening, focus groups (online or in person), and even scanning relevant discussion forums for information. Even scanning relevant blog posts and news articles can give more context to some of the data you’ve collected.
  • Talk about it with others. Talk to colleagues not just in market research but in other fields, as well. You might be surprised what you learn that could impact the way you are looking at those research insights. For example, talking to customer support teams could give you more qualitative information about trends they’re seeing from the calls they’re taking from customers. Talking to the marketing department could give you ideas on how to craft a story and what messaging is resonating with your audience.
  • Put yourself in the audience’s shoes. Think about the information from the standpoint of your stakeholders. First, realize that your stakeholder has a unique set of priorities. The better you can talk to those priorities, the more likely your message is to land well with your stakeholders. Second, think about what you will be more receptive to: the data presented as a story or the data presented as a standard report? There are times when the latter is what your stakeholder will respond to better. But often, the data will be more compelling if it is presented as a story, not just numbers and charts.

Note: I realize that there are times when the customer has a specific output for the data they are expecting, and when taking the time, energy, and resources to craft a story from the data you’ve gathered just will not work. However, when the client permits, I think it’s entirely worth the effort to shift gears from the standard report formats we have become accustomed to and move into a storytelling format for presenting our findings.