Storytelling: New Science Is Enriching An Ancient Art

To better understand the importance of storytelling and how to master the art and science of it, it helps to take a look at what experts across a number of industries are saying.

magic open book of fantasy stories

Editor’s Note: Communicating impactful information in a concise, engaging way is not just a business imperative, but also a cultural shift. As we increasingly move to a universal “visual literacy” model driven by technology, the need to condense needed information into intuitive graphics is only going to increase in importance.

In today’s post, David Paull of Dialsmith uses examples from his business to explore how this topic is impacting not just their deliverables, but also design and use cases. It’s a great lens to view a big topic that will continue to be an imperative for the insights industry.


By David Paull: 

In the current landscape of buzzwords, “storytelling” is certainly up there. The question is, why is one of the most ancient forms of communication getting so much attention right now, especially in the market research landscape? I think the answer lies within the fact that people are looking for a more authentic way to connect, to be understood, and to persuade.

In a well-communicated story, there is a connection, and at the heart of storytelling is a two-way interaction. While one side is more active (that of the story-teller) and the other side is more passive (that of the story-receiver), there is still an interaction that is connecting both sides and it’s that interaction that’s so unique to effective storytelling. But, what makes for a well-communicated story and how do our interactions differ between stories told verbally versus stories told through written word or graphics?

My company has been fascinated with this for some time, especially because so much of our clients’ research is focused on how to craft and deliver a compelling story through advertising, messaging, legal arguments, political dialog, and entertainment. To better understand the importance of storytelling and how to master the art and science of it, it helps to take a look at what experts across a number of industries are saying.

Telling a story that resonates begins, first and foremost, with having something compelling to say. As Russ Rubin of Cambiar puts it,

“[It] is the proverbial, ‘tail wagging the dog.’ You can’t be a good storyteller without having a good story. And the telling of the story isn’t necessarily dependent on tools, technologies or methods. It’s dependent on having something worth sharing that will matter…”

When not focused so much on tools and technologies, storytellers can focus more on other verbal, and non-verbal, techniques to connect with their audience. Vanessa Van Edwards, Science of People behavioral investigator, asserts,

“Content is less important than the way the information is presented.”

Her work focuses on the importance of body language, vocal modulation, and mannerisms to connect with an audience. This maps interestingly with work done by Elizabeth Merrick, former senior manager, customer insights at global retailer HSN, in her study on how viewers reacted differently based on familiarity to HSN’s on-air hosts. Merrick said,

“We learned that while more- and less-familiar hosts eventually got to the same [viewer opinion] rating level, more familiar hosts started out the segment with a faster boost while less familiar hosts got there at a much more gradual pace. This is important to know because if we’re running a shorter segment, or need to get to the value quicker, a more familiar host will better accomplish that. However, there is a higher cost to HSN for more familiar hosts and when we can reduce costs and use less familiar hosts we do so and that has a positive impact on the bottom line.”

What this tells us is that to have success in convening a story to viewers when time is short, it’s more about the non-verbal connection viewers have with more-familiar hosts then the fact that both more- and less-familiar hosts may be saying the same thing.

Of course, not all stories are told verbally. Especially in market research, stories are often told through data, charts, infographics, and other visuals. In those cases, how visuals tell a story is critically important. Derrak Richard, senior information designer at Market Strategies International, puts it this way,

“Today, it’s all about storytelling and infographics, and visuals are a key part of that. All researchers want to connect the reader with the data, and that’s what data visualizations and storytelling can do. But finding the story is the key. The infographics and other visuals are on top of that, helping to communicate an already good story.”

As much as effective storytelling is about communicating the right material in the right way, it’s also largely about what’s selectively left out. Kristin Luck, serial entrepreneur and growth-hacking expert, encourages efficiency in storytelling, saying,

“Applying the principles of brutal efficiency and distilling down the essence of your message both really resonate with me. Too often I see marketing and sales folks get bogged down in the details and lose the audience before they’ve communicated their message.”

Kristin also touts finding “the hook,” saying,

“I think what you leave out is important because it’s the essence of what defines ’the hook’. You want to leave your audience hungry for information.”

Dial testing (a topic near and dear to my heart) is one method Kristin relies on to help keep a story tight and on message, saying,

“Dial testing is amazing at determining which specific points are resonating with your target audience and which aren’t, and testing the impact of your ‘hook’.”

Another example of dial testing as a means of measuring the impact and persuasiveness in how a story is told is work done by Dr. Charlton McIIwain, associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. Dr. McIIwain and his colleague used dial testing to dissect race-based messaging in political ads and this is what they learned:

“We set up an experiment where we wanted to expose people to political ads that had either no race-based message, one that had an implicit race-based message or one that had an explicit race-based message.

For this study, we chose ads that featured a white candidate discussing the difference between himself and his opposing African American candidate. The ads were not created as attack ads, but the candidate did focus on pointing out that the other candidate was “different.”

Our goal was to see if there was any impact on participant’s view of the candidate based on which ads they viewed. We tracked 113 participants’ reactions with the Perception Analyzer® dials. We looked to see if their ratings changed when the race-based content was introduced in the ad to see if there was a connection there.

In previous research, we were only able to gauge at the end how participants felt about a candidate, but we wanted to see how the message, images and text during the ad impacted that end judgment while participants watched and rated it in the moment. The dial results clearly showed that there are a lot of complicated and sophisticated things going on over the course of an ad that have an impact on where people end up at the end. We were able to see the movement (of the dial result lines) at precise moments— the clear static lines and then the stark point where the ratings start to fall in very close proximity to the moment when the race-based content was introduced.”

The dial results showed a clear correlation between the introduction of race-based messaging and losing the audience, which was even starker when the race-based messaging was implicit. This could certainly be useful intel to storytellers out on the campaign trail.

Storytelling as a means of communication has been around since the beginning of human interaction and it’s the compelling nature of this communication method that has us continually studying its merits. However, storytelling best practices are not always clear cut. You can’t be a good storyteller without a good story, yet how something is communicated is often as important as that which is being communicated. And, what is left out is often as important as what is included. What research techniques such as dial testing allow us to do is pinpoint the behaviors of the storyteller, and the elements of the story itself, to know what to leave in, take out, and change in order to best connect each story with its intended audience. It’s that chase for benefits that come from the perfect connection and interaction with an audience that makes storytelling so fascinating to keep studying and refining.

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4 responses to “Storytelling: New Science Is Enriching An Ancient Art

  1. I am discovering more segments of society that depend on youtube and other visual media for communication AND for even local news. In one segment, more literate people used Facebook for most input while less literate people used YouTube. Visual information sharing is a form of storying

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David Paull

Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Dialsmith LLC