How to Use Storytelling Techniques to Bring Your Research to Life

Jan 17, 2017

Everybody loves a good story. But as anyone who has tried to address a room of people has probably observed, attention is a fickle and inconsistent resource. Neuroscience tells us that we do concentrate on things that reward us for that attention. Though anyone working in market research would argue that consumer insights are absolutely a reward, viewers of their presentations might feel otherwise after enduring slide after slide of data tables and jargon. That’s because our brains seek out narratives: descriptive communication that follows an arc and stimulates audience investment. So when it’s time to share the results of your study, the key to keeping your audience engaged and interested in pursuing action lies in turning your report into a story.

The Story of Your Research: How to Entertain and Inform

Of course, turning your data into a story is a little different from crafting the latest fiction bestseller. Your goal is less eloquent prose and mass entertainment, and more to convey a newly validated truth that spurs action and justifies crucial business decisions. The techniques you use to bring your evidence to life should enhance and contextualize your findings by embedding them within an accessible narrative. Here are few handy tips for finding the story in your data, and delivering your findings for optimum engagement and acceptance.

1.    Frame Your Story

Finding the story in your data isn’t always easy. But if you’re unsure of where to start, it may help to first develop the lens through which you want your results to be analyzed. In other words, you must frame your data within the context of your business needs. In order to build such a framework, revisit the ‘why’ of your research: the reason you conducted the study in the first place. Returning to your research objectives can help to identify what problem you’re trying to solve, what you already know about it, and how you plan to apply your results to it: basically, your data’s story. This will help you not only keep your presentation relevant and focused on the problem at hand, but also figure out where your story begins.

2.    Know How Much Your Audience Knows

Stories are more powerful if they build on what your audience already knows, believes, and accepts. As you ground your story in the purpose of the study, you should be able to identify just how much backstory your audience already has. Whether you’re presenting to other departments like marketing and product development, or to a room full of executives and stakeholders, you should tailor your story’s beginning to build upon their past knowledge while filling in any information they may not already have. This will ensure your audience is invested, up to speed, and primed for adding to their insight. So when you get to the climax of your story—the finding that made your research worthwhile—instead of asking the audience to accept a new or surprising fact, you will simply be expanding on their existing knowledge.

3.    Follow a Narrative Structure

Many a presenter is tempted to simply go through the motions: introduce themselves, then their methodology, then what respondents said. Though efficient in getting information across, this technique is rarely effective in getting information to sink in. But if you give your report a narrative structure, your findings can flow more eloquently from one element to the next. Mythologist Joseph Campbell offers a familiar template in The Hero’s Journey: A hero goes forth on a quest, encounters obstacles, and achieves victory, returning with something to bestow on his fellow man. (Not unlike the job of a researcher, no?) This is just one way to present the quest, er, objective of your research; the twists and turns you encountered; and how your new knowledge affects your existing insights. Metaphors, themes, and side stories are all welcome, just so long as you can link every highlight into a cohesive plot.

 4.   Make the Stakes Feel Real

We already know that it’s emotions, not logic, that truly motivate people. So while the facts of your story are crucial, the way they make your audience feel is even more so. In other words, the stakes of your research become real to people not just because they exist, but because they feel real. A great way to appeal to your audience’s emotion is by including individual perspectives. Turn your respondents into characters in your story by including verbatims from qualitative research, injecting their voice right into the narrative and humanizing your findings. Or include your own experience as a researcher, and share what surprised, frustrated, or delighted you about the project. Numbers and data alone rarely persuade an audience, but visuals and personal detail help.

This might sound like a lot of extra work for a report you’ve technically already completed; but embedding your insights within an engaging narrative will help you deliver them for optimal comprehension and acceptance. To read our own story of how a small but growing beverage company quickly combined exploratory qualitative research and validating quantitative research to prioritize a winning package redesign, download the case study below.

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