Editor’s Note: Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with people whose strengths lie on the “science” side of market research, and others whose strength is more on the “arts” side of the practice. It is rare to find individuals who are outstanding at both. While recent rapid advances in marketing and research technology have gotten a lot of deserved attention, we’ve seen at the same time renewed interest in the importance of communication, of storytelling, to convey insights and drive activation. Emily James has written an inspired post on storytelling and the importance of the more artistic side of market research. Great read!
The research and insight industries often attract those of us fascinated with behavior.
In the words of Paul Magrs, “You want to know about people. You want to know what makes them tick. You’ve spent most of your life listening to the way people talk, watching how they behave. They intrigue you, they madden you, they fascinate you.” While this quote applies to the inclinations of most market researchers, Magrs was actually talking about the inclinations of a fiction writer. It is amazing how much they and other artistic professions overlap in terms of the skills and techniques required.
There are many articles available which focus on how science, technology, and STEM subjects should be learned from and utilized in order to build up the relevant skill set for an expert researcher. However, here I want to provide a few examples from creative, artistic experiences and studies that provide valuable transferrable skills which researchers can learn from.
The first example I want to draw upon is the art of stage design. This might seem a bit out there in terms of immediate connection to insights but bear with me. A TED Talk from Es Devlin – an artist and designer – explores the magic behind stage sculptures that were made for the concerts of artists such as Beyoncé, Adele, U2, and so many more.
Devlin’s strategy for creating these amazing pieces of art that told the story and enriched the performance of the music artist was to look into the lyrics of the track-list and draw inspiration from that. She took the existing data and used it to tell the incredible overarching story of the artist and their music through visual stage design. Devlin calls her work stage sculpting but recognizes that what she’s really creating is experiences. Just like a researcher, the story she is telling works to create fantastic valuable and often intimate experiences for the audience.
“Every artist works in the pursuit of communicating something that’s true.” – Es Devlin, 2019.
This principle is the core of the work of every type of artist, and researcher, on the planet. This fact stands true even if that truth is an interpretation of a factual report or contained within a work of imagination; there is always truth to be communicated in every art form.
The silent film is one of the most traditional technological forms of televised art that answers the important question: how does one tell a story without words? The old-age adage of showing rather than telling is never more prevalent than it is within this art form, which is one of many tactics and techniques that researchers can learn from this unexpected source of insight.
It was the short story writer, Anton Chekov, who stated, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”. The real difference between show and tell is that show invokes on the reader a mental image of the scene/emotion rather than a statement of it, show pulls the reader into the scene and creates a slow connection between the character and the audience. It allows for vivid details to be envisioned, sometimes without even prompting and keeps the audience active throughout the story.
There are many techniques such as this that cross over or share roots with that of creative writing. The voice of the character is also incredibly important, especially in a silent film. This voice will come through in the character’s personality, their actions and reactions, their facial expressions, as the actor, writer, and producer work to produce realistic character. Building fully-rounded characters promote believability and a sense of reality that will enrapture the reader and allows them to suspend their disbelief no matter how fantastical the story might be. Utilizing this tactic within market research will enhance the realness of the respondents rather than looking at them purely as data on a spreadsheet, and will work to challenge even the most closed-minded audience of the resulting research report.
There are many creative writing techniques that can inform the research process, from design to reporting, in order to encourage engagement. However, here are three final basic writing techniques:
- Wording and phrasing are crucial.
Is it reflective of the characters/respondents you’re talking about? Does it inspire a positive or negative reaction from the audience? The phrasing you use can mean the difference between someone taking your advice and engaging with you until the end, or distrusting both you and the research conducted.
One way to avoid this is to use strong verbs, as active verbs rather than passive ones will inspire confidence and authority. Also, using dialogue will work to support your recommendations, in this case quoting directly from the data and participants. The more accurate and specific your descriptions and data are, the more believable the research will be.
- A story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end…
…as does the research process and report. The structure is everything in storytelling, and there are two parts to this: the story and the plot. While these may seem like very similar points, they are actually different but still intertwined. The plot is the driving force of the characters within the overarching story; so, if the story is the business objectives, the plot is the research objectives, processes, respondents’ actions, that all provide the right data towards the resulting report. But a fully rounded story means tying up loose ends, making sure that everything makes sense and the recommendations you make can be linked to the data used.
- Have on hand a second pair of eyes.
Mistakes can jar with the audience of any story; causing readers to question the believability or trustworthiness of the writing and the researcher. While it may only have a minor effect, it’s still enough to impact the role of insights in driving informed decisions.
As much as market research can be described as a science, we must not lose sight of it as an art form too – taking inspiration from other fields around us and applying the principles of both storytelling and design to help craft better reports.