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The Art of Storytelling: Resources for Research Storytellers

[Big Ideas Series] How do you become a great storyteller? Learn from some of the best to turn data into a impactful narrative with actionable insights.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Zoe Dowling will be speaking at IIeX Europe (February 19-20 in Amsterdam). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX EU. Click here to learn more.

Storytelling. It’s a hot industry buzzword but what does it really mean in the context of research reports?

  • The ability to condense key findings into a cohesive narrative?
  • The structure of the report?
  • The visual representation of the data?
  • The presenter’s delivery of the results?

I’d suggest all of these are important. And there’s something more…

In her 2010 TED Talk, Dr. Brené Brown said, “stories are just data with a soul”.  I think this is key. Research storytelling connects the audience to the data. It humanizes the numbers or the themes, enabling the findings to resonate, and in turn, become memorable.

With this in mind, how do we become better storytellers?

Google “storytelling” and you’ll find a plethora of material, yet it can be tricky to find information that is readily transferable to insights reporting.

I’ve dipped into material such as The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby, and even ventured into the world of screenwriting (Break into Screenwriting, by Ray Fensham). These are excellent but feel a long way from what we, as researchers, need to accomplish.

So, with the view of starting small and closer to home, here are four resources I suggest exploring:

  1. TED Talks – The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, by Chris Anderson.

This book is geared towards presenting, which is very useful in itself, but I’ve also found helpful snippets around developing a good story. Even if the book isn’t for you, it’s worth remembering that TED Talks themselves are great inspiration for presenting in general, and there are several talks dedicated to storytelling.

  1. Most content by Nancy Duarte.

Continuing with storytelling TED Talks, there’s an excellent one by Nancy Duarte on The Secret Structure of Great Talks. Duarte is a big proponent of the “what it is, what it could be” story structure. Personally, I’ve found this particular structure challenging to fully enact in presentations. However, it is still very useful when considering the structure you will use within your presentation, and whether you need to adjust course.

Her book Slide:ology offers practical advice on creating story-driven presentations. As the title suggests, much of the content focuses the visuals. However, there’s also valuable information on thinking about the audience for your PowerPoint, the context within which they’ll see it, and creating ideas that will resonate.

  1. Get to the Heart – How Movie Storytelling Secrets Can Make Your Presentation Clear, Compelling, and Earn You a Seat at the Table, by Ted Frank.

I came across Ted at a conference last year, where he and Netflix’s Dave Decelle gave a rousing presentation, entitled “From Stats to Storyboard”.  Ted’s presentation and book are wonderful because they directly address storytelling within the market research industry. He offers very manageable tips to guide you through building your own story-driven insights report. You can read a review of the book on the Industry Week website.

  1. Lead with a Story – A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.

There are many thought-provoking stories in this book, along with exercises and references. I’ll confess that I’ve only dipped in and out of this book, but I added it because I do think it’s worth a read.

IIeX Europe will feature an entire track dedicated to storytelling , with three presentations (including my own), followed by a panel discussion. Hear tips on creating engaging content gleaned from the master storytellers, how to apply storytelling in the context of UX design, and the power of video for insights storytelling. And of course, join the conversation. Hope to see you there!

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