A couple of weeks ago I got involved in a bit of a Tweet-off with Ray Poynter. Ray argued (and I’m paraphrasing him slightly here) that our business was to uncover insights and that our clients would generally be indebted to us for our provision of these insights.
I, on the other hand, argued that insights are not much use unless they make a real difference to the client’s business and that storytelling is one of the key skills that can ensure this happens.
Ray responded with a blog post and, later, with a new discussion topic in the NewMR group on Linked in. In writing this short article, I suppose I’m taking our Tweet-off into something of a Blog-off, but I think its important to be clear what is meant by storytelling and why this is important. As Ray says, it’s hard to do that in 140 characters on Twitter.
Some people have tried to argue that the provision of insight is more important than storytelling. This is a bit like arguing that ingredients are more important than cooking. Sure enough, you can take the ingredients and chuck them in a pot and hope for the best. And you might get lucky. But as a client-side researcher for quite a few years, I sat through at least a hundred research debriefs, and sadly the majority of them were very badly cooked indeed.
This is the great tragedy of market research – so many clever people, so much expertly-crafted methodology, so much money spent, but so little impact at senior levels in business. It’s not for nothing that “ROI” is pretty much at the top of every research client’s wishlist, while virtually every MRS Conference features much agency hand-wringing about how we can have more impact in the boardroom.
So how does storytelling come into this?
Storytelling is a discipline (or an art, or maybe a bit of both) through which our messages are communicated, processed and understood. The approach uses familiar story structures that help our audiences to recall and make sense of what we have told them. It puts our clients or their brands at the centre of the narrative. But above all, a storytelling approach takes the audience on a journey towards a clear dénouement, appealing to them rationally and emotionally along the way.
And I’d argue that that dénouement is what we are all about. Or should be. Clients don’t attend research debriefs because they want to find out “what we did” or “what people think”, or even “what people feel.” They come along because they want to know what to do. They want to know how to get from Point A to Point B. And this is what storytelling does so very well.
Let’s get one thing straight. Storytelling does not require you to become a thespian. Nor a writer. In fact you barely need to be able to write. But you do need to know about your client’s business; where they have come from, where they are now and where specifically they want to get to.
And in your analysis, you need to uncover a solution: how will the client get to Point B? The discovery of new insights is key to this (otherwise the solution will be blindingly obvious, and the client need not have commissioned the research.) Once you have your solution, a storytelling approach requires you to group your insights into a small number of themes (or chapters) that convince, persuade or inspire the client to act in the way you are suggesting. Anything that doesn’t do this should be binned. Or at least confined to the appendix.
It’s not easy. At Essential Research, we’ve seen a fair few tears shed during this phase. But storytelling is one of the things that – we believe – sets us apart and, more importantly, ensures that our research is indeed Essential, not just a nice to have.
Insight or storytelling? We’ll have both please.