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…