Tag Archives: storytelling



A solution to the increasing volume and complexity of research reporting is to increase our story-telling skills. Here are 10 useful guidelines.

Storytelling has become one of the hot topics in business circles in the last couple of years. One reason for this is the sheer explosion of the amount of information that must be processed by organisations and communicated to their various stakeholders. By some measures the amount of data in this world is growing by something like 45 per cent per annum. So how do business people communicate all this information?

Market researchers, before the age of the PC and the datashow projector, used to communicate by two means only. One was to physically get up, shuffle papers and present a virtual lecture to the client. The second means was to present a written report. We were famous for them and even until recently market research firms were criticised for their delivery of doorstopper reports.
No wonder so much of our work ended up populating the bottom drawer of the client’s desk. It was like this from the early decades of the 20th-century when pioneer Charles Parlin would submit reports hundreds of pages long, right through to the 1980s, when the advent of the PC and PowerPoint began to change the way we told our stories to our clients.

At first the use of visuals and a PowerPoint medium was an exciting new thing for market researchers. The medium suits our use of statistical charts, though most senior professionals will remember the heady days when assistants would come charging into their office saying ‘look at this!’ and show how they’d used clipart to help deliver the visual metaphor to whatever was going on inside the data. Fortunately the fad of adding whoosh sound effects passed quickly.

But did it lead to better story telling? By and large the answer is no. Over time market research slide decks have turned into gargantuan productions showing slide after slide of pies and bars. In short this process has commoditised a lot of market research. Many senior researchers may deny this but their staff gauge the success of their productive day by the number of slides they have produced. Presentations are described and measured by being a deck of 60 or being a major “120+” kind of presentation. Whole MR organisations are structured around the production and delivery of these slide decks.

This is a tragedy. Technology has led us to focus more on presenting greater volumes of supporting statistical evidence rather than the quality of insight delivered. With the amount of data increasing exponentially the problem is only getting worse.

Volume is not the only issue. The typical insights we deliver as market researchers in 2014 are, surely, deeper and more complex than the insights delivered 20 or 30 years ago. I remember joining a very good market research firm in the 1990s and in the bowels of the filing room I discovered a set of political polling reports from the 1970s. The charts were rudimentary and hand drawn. The reports were very basic. There was no segmentation work, nor any kind of underlying driver analysis: there was nothing except simple descriptive statistics.

Today statistical analysis may be quite advanced and require some explanation in order for the clients to understand how we have reached our conclusions. Researchers may also be dealing with several streams of data including sales data consumer survey data and verbatim feedback collected by the client’s own call centre. These various rivers of information may be compiled into one particularly rich report that goes beyond descriptive statistics and into the world of strategic thinking or what-if modelling.

At this point our reports may get bogged down not just in absolute volume but growing complexity as well. The solution to this problem is surely not “the same, but more of it.” We require a step-change in our reporting style, and I’m not alone in arguing that we need to shift from evidence-based reporting toward a story-telling emphasis.

My own uncle first alerted me to this problem back in the 1990s when he was an engineer in charge of major hydro projects worldwide. Montreal-based Uncle Rod told me a true story about how he had received an urgent phone call from Hugo Chavez, then president of Venezuela. The President wanted help to decipher a huge report about where to build a major hydro dam. The report had been put together by acknowledged experts in hydro construction and civil engineering. They considered the financial, engineering, geo-technical and social costs attached to each option. In short, the report , which was hundreds of pages long, set out the upside and downsides of two competing locations. My uncle explained to the President that the authors of the report had practically written the book on these kinds of complex decisions. “That’s the problem!” exclaimed Chavez, “they wrote a book. All I want is the answer!”

My uncle told me the story to impart two lessons. First he wanted to show me that even with billion-dollar decisions such as hydro projects, and the Venezuelan project is one of the 10 biggest in the world, one can get too bogged down in decimal points. To paraphrase those hundreds of pages of expertise, the choice between Location A and Location B was about 50-50. In the end, the experts should have had the courage to put it in those simple terms. The second point was that the report was too big and too technical for the audience. Hugo Chavez was no fool, quite the contrary, but neither was he a qualified engineer. As he said, all he wanted was to make a decision.

Market researchers think long and hard about the engagement level of respondents to the surveys we conduct. We are fully aware in questionnaire construction that we must keep things simple, brief, easily understood as well as engaging. Yet, at the same time, many of us fail to think of our reporting along these same terms. Why do we need to show page after page of pie charts? What is the benefit of making a deck 90 slides long? What processes do we implement to boil down all our information into one easily understood story that passes the Hugo Chavez test?

Here is where storytelling technique becomes a useful tool in the armoury of the professional market researcher. Many organisations instil presentation skills by giving younger researchers practice internally and then in front of clients in the process of sharing decks of PowerPoint slides – but this training process only covers half the story. We get very good at presenting, but the stories we present are underdeveloped or dull and overcomplicated.

Yet stories are an elegant solution to the problem of too much information. Humans are wired to process stories and understand them. Stories act as a kind of cognitive coathanger on which we can drape emotions, characters as well as the sense of actions and consequences that are the hallmark of human dramas.

Even a 4-year-old can hear the story of Little Red Riding Hood and gasp in the knowledge that Grandma’s house is now occupied by a wolf. In doing so that four-year-old is handling irony, and processing a moral universe that is in-fact quite complicated. I doubt if a deck of thirty PowerPoint slides showing pie charts (and various KPIs,) of right and wrong could impart the same level of wisdom. Aesop’s fables are another example of simple stories being able to impart rich life lessons.

And get this. A pre-schooler may not have the mathematical skills to interpret statistical charts, but even at age 5 they have the intellectual horsepower to comprehend the complexities and film grammar of a two-hour movie. The storytelling techniques of moviemaking should in fact package up the rich and complicated story that comes out of our market research work.

So what are the basics of filmmaking? What storytelling techniques do script writers and directors and film editors use to keep us engaged for 15 gripping weeks of a TV series such as Breaking Bad?

My own career as it turns out was blessed by the fact that I spent eight years in TV drama scripting. I was a script editor and writer for a host of shows predominantly soaps and cop dramas. This early career was entertaining and made a great dinner party conversations, though to be honest by the time I quit television in my early 30s I felt as if the experience had taken me down a professional cul-de-sac.

Not so, as it turned out. Over those eight years I was immersed in the world of storytelling and never realised what a universal skill-set this turned out to be, at least not until recently. So here’s my list of ten techniques that are useful for market research storytelling.

1. Include some back story. Before you launch into the main thrust of the report, it helps to recapture why the research was conducted in the first place. In a recent report for a bank I recounted how during the observational research project we had witnessed a customer who attempted to open an account, but failed in their quest. It was a minor drama compared to the bigger questions we were going to explore in the report, but the incident illustrated how even small and incidental details contributed to a failure by the bank. For the sake of two minutes the bank forfeited the lifetime value of their customer. So I framed the report in terms of this incident. My subtitle for the report was: The two minutes that cost $50,000. That little back story framed the rest of the discussion: it set the theme.

2. Develop good characters. Whether qualitative or quantitative, professional research prides itself on keeping respondents anonymous. For the sake of privacy this anonymity is a good thing, but it makes for lousy storytelling. This is why I love verbatim questions in my questionnaires. Without naming names I can refer to the lady who complained about the coffee. Without divulging identifying details I can refer to the grumpy old guy who just wouldn’t be pleased. In script writing good characterisation does not come out of demographic descriptions, it comes out of the decision-making by these characters. The Denzel Washington character in the train movie Unstoppable can be described demographically, but what makes him interesting and trustworthy are the decisions he makes along the way. The same in our data: here is the lady who is prepared to pay a premium price! Over there, the customer who yearns for the old-style products. By introducing a few of these characters into our narrative we can explain later results quite simply. Instead of pointing to slide after slide of NPS scores, we may simply conclude that the new strategy got the thumbs down from Mr Grumpy. Everybody in the room gets it.

3. Find suitable metaphors. Sometimes very complicated things can be explained by using a good simple illustration. When asked to explain a factor analysis, I ask the audience to picture a new kitchen device called the un-blender. Where a blender turns diverse ingredients into gray statistical soup, an un-blender starts off with grey soup and after 30 seconds reveals the underlying ingredients: the factors that made up the soup. So far my layman’s explanation of factor analysis has received warm reviews from all my clients including, uh oh, two PhDs in statistics. Far better the metaphor that gives the gist than the full technical explanation.

4. Structuring a story very carefully. One of the biggest challenges in film writing is to find a structure that produces a compelling tale. I quite like movies where two or three different strands either click together or collide just before the end of the movie. When you have 45 minutes to convey the rich discovery and the insights of a research project you have the same time available to you as that available to the writers of say an episode of CSI or Law And Order. In other words you have room to introduce a couple of twists and turns as you piece together the bloodstains, fingerprints and ballistic details required to reach a conclusion. Clients don’t mind if in the course of that presentation you show them a little bit about your forensic techniques. Your audience doesn’t mind seeing some of the story behind the main story. When we put together cop shows, the question of whodunit was always less interesting than the question of how to the cops find the guilty party. Market research follows the same narrative arc.

5. Involve the audience. The audience of the drama can at any one moment be either up with the play, ahead of the play or behind the action. A skilled storyteller varies the pace so that sometimes the audience knows what is coming around the bend before our main character does. “Don’t go down the alley!” we yell at the hero. “There’s a bad guy waiting for you with a gun!” We love those moments, at least in moderation. If we get ahead of the protagonist too often however we begin to wonder why we are bothering to watch such a klutz.

On the flip side, sometimes the hero does things and we don’t understand what he or she is up to. All will be revealed later! In TV storylining we used to refer to these as mysterioso moments. A few of these add spice to the drama, and they allow the audience to revel in the intelligence of the protagonist. At other times within the movie, we are simply up with the play, neither ahead of it all behind the protagonist.

Alfred Hitchcock was a master of control when it came to these three audience statuses. Within a heartbeat he could take us from being ahead of the action to being 12 steps behind. Just when we think we’ve figured everything out, we realise we are embroiled in something much bigger and more complicated! Now I’m not suggesting that market researchers go for that effect too often. But there is a lot to be said for having a kind of rhythm between the lean back and listen elements of the presentation and the lean forward moments in which the audience is challenged. Rhetoric questions, for example, signify a change in audience status.

6. Remind the audience of what’s at stake. Don’t forget we are in the business of providing the information required for our clients to make important and sometimes very expensive decisions. If we work in FMCG, then perhaps we need to remind the client that in this business 80% of new product launches fail on average every year. The stakes are high! One reason I used the story of the lost bank customer was that I wanted to reinforce that our modest project was not about measuring customer resources at the bank, but about mitigating risk of failure. I wanted that top of mind, so that even during the prosaic bar charts that I had to present, these were contextualised by what was at stake.

7. Seek storytelling variety. When I worked on a cop show in Australia we used to crank out two episodes every single week. As a group of storyliners we recognised that cops only do a certain number of things. They examine crime scenes, they grill the bad guys, they chase suspects, they observe from the anonymous grey van parked over the road. We boiled this down to eight modes of behaviour, and we made sure that in any given episode of the cop show each mode was used no more than once. In other words we didn’t have a car chase followed by a foot chase. Or have an interrogation scene followed later by another one. In marketing research reporting we also have a shortlist of reporting modes. But this is why I get critical of seeing a deck of slides it features a whole stream of descriptive charts, followed by yet another stream of descriptive charts. It is useful to break down our reports into chapters, and for each chapter to be fundamentally quite different to those previous. So after introducing what’s at stake in chapter 1, I might present a series of descriptive slides in chapter two before searching for strategies using different techniques in chapters 3,and 4. This keeps the storytelling interesting.

8. Don’t be afraid to develop a theme of a deeper nature. Very often in market research we get to study a subject but in the course of that study we ruminate on deeper material. We may be tracking the performance of the brand but at the same time we are witnessing a shift in the zeitgeist. Development of such scenes in the movie or TV program adds a lot of richness to the storytelling. We are not just witnessing a story about a person; we are reflecting on the human condition. In my own presentations I refer to these parts as the “I’ve been thinking” zone, and it may consist of a single photo, or a discussion about a relevant and fascinating book that I have been reading in conjunction with the research study. Sometimes these pauses in the narrative spark a much greater discussion than might be expected. Just as the film will resonate with the public because it seems to capture the mood of the audience, so a thematic discussion may capture and resonate with the mood of the client.

9. Action is better than talk. Charts are stepping stones in a forward moving narrative. Your headlines ought to be spiced up with verbs, your summary findings should lead to consequences. You’re building a case and working toward a verdict.

10. Finally, good storytelling always has an authenticity. What made that terrific, nail-biting movie Captain Phillips so genuinely exciting was the absolute authenticity of the Somali pirates. It was brilliant casting. The director allowed a degree of improvisation from his cast also, so that the scenes were never over-polished or slick. Those actors didn’t look like they were acting; they were the real thing: lean and desperate. In market research reports our statistics and charts and evidence and conclusions must all reek of similar authenticity. I quite frequently add an anecdote in my presentation about my own journey of doubt during the project, or about the difficulties of fieldwork. I will mention the fact that one respondent, a sleepless parent perhaps, completed the online survey at three o’clock in the morning, or that another respondent wrote 1200 words in response to a question about why they would recommend a product or service. I want the client to breathe-in and smell the reality of our work.

Storytelling places on us one demand that challenges many corporate style guides. Your firm may specify a certain tone, look and feel to its reports. I find storytelling by nature is more personal than that. A good story requires the emotional investment of the storyteller. In an age of more data than conventional reporting systems can deal with; storytelling demands that you lay your heart bare in the telling and sharing of the tale. You up for that?

What a good, memorable story requires.


This last two weeks I’ve been reading a textbook called Storycraft, written by journalist Jack Hart and designed to help writers of non-fiction hone and enrich their skills: to turn true events into compelling stories. I was pleasantly surprised actually, because the book is damned good, but it reminded me how much I had learned in a previous life as a script writer and as a freelance journalist. For sure, there were new insights and tips that I will dial-up in future, but the most useful function of the book for me was to set out a formal checklist of things we ought to incorporate in a compelling story – especially one based on data. Here are a few must haves.

1) A clear tone of voice and standpoint. As teller of the story are you the problem solver who was given a challenge, or are you the skeptic who is trying to disprove something? Are you an insider or an independent outsider?  Be clear on this.

2) A clear story structure. Stories usually start calmly but quickly a crisis or decision-point occurs that threatens to change everything. The problem gets worse, and then gradually the heroes (in analytics perhaps, or those amazing customers and what they told us) wrest the flight controls off the dead pilot and set about bringing this aircraft down safely.  Most story structures rack up the tension and then engage in the process of solving the problems. Always, there are decision-moments along the pathway.

3) You need characters – especially good guys. Now in crunching Big Data, you’re reporting on numbers, right? Well, not quite. Those numbers represent people – so it can be useful to pull out one line of data, give the customer a nickname  – Honest Harry – and use him as a cipher to tell the big story. Here’s where Harry faces a choice – what will he do?  Personify the data. Don’t forget there are other characters in the story as well – including the analytics team.  

4) Setting.  A good story is underscored by the setting. High Noon took place in a lonesome, Godforsaken town miles from any help.  This framed Gary Cooper’s dilemma and added to the tension. CSI uses Las Vegas or NYC to good effect to create for each series a memorable backdrop against which their problem solving skills stand out in stark relief. When you’ve got 30 minutes to stand up and report on what your analytics have found – don’t forget to devote 3 or four minutes setting the scene.

5) Satisfactory denouement. The wrap up of the story had darn well better sing – not fizzle out. So in putting together your presentation or report think hard about this.  The plane is coming in to land, there’s ice on the runway and a small child (and a few nuns, there are always a few nuns) in the passenger cabin.  Structure the story so that when the ending occurs – the 747 ploughs through the snow on its only wheel before coming to rest right outside departure gate 9 – everything wraps up tidily. The hero gets home for thanksgiving. The little girl is saved. The nuns collective faith is restored. 

Now in writing these things I come over as pretty glib. Yet I’ve seldom done a presentation without thinking of these elements. At first I thought it was just a duty, if you have a story, tell it well.

But these days there’s a much bigger reason for storytelling skills to be employed in the boardroom. Big Data deals with 8 zillion narratives. You want this to be the one that the decision-makers remember.

Story technique has been with us for 2300 years – it’s time to brush up on it

2300 years ago Aristotle wrote “The Poetics” which contained his secrets of storytelling. Being human, these secrets haven’t really changed.

Many research presentations I’ve seen, including many of my own, have been bogged down by too many facts and figures. It is like reading a book which is so full of florid description that one begins to skip pages and start looking for the action.

Likewise stories can suffer from relentless action – the type we see in Peter Jackson movies where we get chase, fight, chase, fight, another chase, another fight followed by another chase – and the net result is just plain boredom. His King Kong movie is one of the few films I’d rate as un-watchable. It ignored the storytelling craft. It was all pageantry (look at our CGI techniques!) and no drama.

We do the same with research. We go heavy on descriptive results – without telling the true story. Or we go heavy on special effects (I do this too much: showing off analytic techniques) but forget to tell the story. Or we simply have a story but we don’t tell it with any craft. We muddle it up. The drama is in there somewhere but we didn’t quite extract it.

This seems crazy, because the craft of telling stories – the techniques and skills required – have been part of our pantheon of written human knowledge for 23 centuries. Storytelling goes back to the dawn of civilization  but the Greeks started thinking about the craft, and analysing it, and applying systematic rules to it since Aristotle considered the subject.

Why not? As Steven Pinker explains it, storytelling has universal elements across so many cultures to lead him to conclude that stories are part of how our brains are wired. They reflect how we think. We’re engineered to tell stories.  Stories are a means of processing complex visual, verbal and emotional information.

In the 20th Century much was written about story telling craft as writers considered modern day psychology and found, among other things, how well Shakespeare captured the human condition. You could pick apart Othello and find it stood up to a Jungian framework, or to modern theories of the human condition. Writers such as Lajos Egri who published the seminal guide for playwrights The Art of Dramatic Writing helped create the debate about what drives a good story: is it events and action, or is it character? He concluded that character was at the heart.

So here is a good definition of what makes a good non-fiction story, summed up by American Jon Franklin in his work: Writing for Story.

“A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he or she confronts or solves.”

Sounds simple, and – actually – it is. But the next layer down is where the story craft gets more complicated:

  1. Giving the story some structure. Do we start at the beginning and build to a conclusion? Or do we start at a critical moment of decision – and then go back and fill in the back-story and offer the options that our lead character faces?
  2. Choosing from whose point of view we tell the story. (Do we tell it from the brand’s point of view?  Or the customers’ point of view?)
  3. Characterisation. Do we paint the Brand as a hero? Or is it a flawed everyman? Are those customers a roiling mass – a Spartacus uprising in the making? – or are they the savvy, price-seeking satisficers who are undoing the good work of marketing? Who are the goodies?

These are just some of the decisions we must make when we tell stories, and they require a lot of forethought and imagination. The process is far different from the usual art of starting a PPT deck with Q1 and working through to the results of the final Question. I wrote a teen-novel once, (The Whole of the Moon) which did quite well but I spent a month deciding whether to tell it first person or third person.

Well before then, working in TV, I learned in drama editing and writing just how important it is to find a congruency between action and character. The decisions made by the protagonist (he kills his attacker) need to be within the realm of possibility for that character. (Would Coca-Cola really do this??)

I also learned that good stories need some relief. Shakespeare would open each act with a couple of fools joking around: something to get the rowdy audience engaged before launching into a Lady MacBeth tirade.  In client presentations or conferences I try the same, and the light moments may seem like diversions, but they always have a point – they put across the enjoyment we’ve had in the project, or they give a bit of anecdotal evidence of the dramas and challenges we faced in the survey: the day the blizzard held up the fieldwork.  These diversions humanise the story, and connect the storyteller to the audience.

Writers can get into a groove and employ hundreds of these little lessons instinctively – but it is increasingly important that researchers and analysts now also learn some of these techniques. We have audiences who want to digest the main thrust of what the data is saying.

And as story tellers we don’t want them to walk out on us.

Even modern theatre employs the lessons from ancient Greece. After all, it is all about people and how they make decisions when complications get in the way of their objectives.