Our mission, as researchers, is to inform decision making; to empower stakeholders to take action. Without that, all we are doing is collecting data or finding interesting nuggets. We need to keep sight of our end goal if we are to be successful. But in a world where we are all time poor, where data is so easy to come by and when we have so many competing (and changing) demands, this goal is often harder to reach than any of us care to admit.
The problem isn’t necessarily that our insight isn’t valued, or project outputs are not interesting, nor even that stakeholders don’t care for insights. I would contend that, often, the issue is being able to cut through the noise so that we get attention and time from stakeholders. A lack of bandwidth is a real reason why insights don’t get used.
Stakeholder Engagement Techniques
Plenty has been written about engaging stakeholders – In particular, the use of storytelling techniques. In fact, my colleagues Emily and Chris have written two excellent articles; one on data journalism and one on boardroom storytelling.
What I want to bring our attention to is the importance of stakeholder emotion. We need to grab attention, force decision-makers to engage in our topic, make them sit up and react in a way that will open up bandwidth. Once you have engaged somebody and made a real connection, then they will (in my experience) make space in their agenda – because you’ve emotively moved up their list of priorities.
I firmly believe, emotion is the key here. If we can connect with stakeholders on an emotional level, creating a human reaction in them, then we are nine-tenths of the way to creating an action. This is the reason why there has been such a focus on video in recent years. It is a natural reaction to the data-centric world that we all now occupy. Data can be cold, calculating and, well, un-emotional. Whilst I can create a story around data, I may not always be able to create a connection or reaction from it unless it is truly startling!
Video is a great way to bring emotion into a story. The simplest and easiest way to communicate a message would be to pair up a powerful (simple!) chart with a vox pop that illustrates the point. The video combined with a single data point acts as a shorthand – hacking our emotional response.
Video isn’t the only way to drive an emotional reaction; it’s just the one that has got a lot of air time recently. Creating a connection to insight is more effective when it occurs on a personal, human level. This means that the medium used has to be appropriate to the audience and their needs or circumstances. Knowing your audience is critical; what makes them react? Are they analytical or visual in the way they consume? Are they creative and artistic? What do they enjoy? All of these enable us to choose different mediums to work through. As research professionals, we tend to work with methods, tools, techniques, and models. I’m not sure how good we are at thinking about the medium of our message.
Choosing the Right Medium
At one level, choosing the medium could be as simple as altering the style of a report format – for example, a written business summary may be sufficient to communicate to a board, where there is a short and focused slot on a formal agenda. However, communicating across a wide group of stakeholders may be better served by an infographic or animated video. The latter even works well on screens in common areas like reception halls, canteens or lifts. These are potential dead spots in a person’s day, where their mind is open and more relaxed. The medium of an animated video grabs attention and takes viewers on a short journey; the medium alone holding engagement for longer than a written format.
On another level, a medium can be about much more. In business, we think of report styles and our creativity stretches as far as an infographic or animated video if we are lucky. But if you walk into a more creative space – say an art gallery – your emotions are stimulated by a much wider variety of different mediums and style, from watercolors to oil paintings to sculptures. Each prompts a different reaction in each of us and each can stimulate debate about what is being communicated; what the artist is telling us.
Art creates an emotional connection in a different way to the previous examples; in the video, we are aiming to create a quick, immediate reaction. An infographic is drawing the viewer into the message and we take them on a journey. With art we create a debate with the viewer; we provoke thought, which helps them find their own understanding of the message. This is an emotion that is rooted in thought-provocation and whilst not as immediate as the video it can have a deeper and more lasting impact on the viewer. We’ve even tested this by creating insight-led artworks for six of the largest consumer sectors (which you can view the results of here).
Ultimately, what we should remember is that as research professions, we have a message to convey. We can choose to tell it in any number of ways. If we know our audience and the purpose our message has, we can tailor the medium to be incredibly effective. If we stop to think about what reaction we want to provoke, then the choice of medium is as important as the message itself.