It was opening day at the Quirk’s Event and we were scheduled to present at 3:30 pm. When we got to the presentation room 10 minutes before show time, about 50 seats were already filled in a space that holds about 125. Not bad, we thought. Respectable turnout.

But then people started, well, pouring in. Within minutes it was standing-room only with dozens more outside. The room was buzzing. We knew we had a good presentation, but didn’t quite expect it would generate this much excitement.

What, exactly, was going on?

So Much Data, So Little Meaning

Our talk, entitled “What Does It All Mean?” appeared to address an issue on everyone’s mind.

For years, all of us in market research, if not everyone in business, have been promised a new age of rational decision-making thanks to the collection of massive amounts of consumer data. Everything would now be clear. There would no longer be the need for unreliable gut decisions. Numbers would remove all risk and uncertainty.

But, for many, it hasn’t turned out that way at all. Instead, marketers and researchers find themselves awash in a sea of data that often leaves them confused, anxious and asking that all-important question that formed the title of our talk. The challenge, you see, is to turn all that data into meaning.

And that’s where stories come in.

Storytelling is Meaning-Making

Being overwhelmed by data is nothing new. Just consider the billions of stars in the night sky. Or all the colors and shapes and sounds coming in at you right now. The amount of information is vast.

And just like at any one moment our brains filter out, or temporarily suppress, the majority of that data, we humans also create stories to help us focus on what’s important to make sense of the world and act effectively within it.

As discussed in an earlier post, stories act as filters, enabling us to focus on a subset of the available data, on something instead of everything. In this way they turn a potentially overwhelming data set into something intelligible, purposeful and, yes, meaningful. Moreover, stories serve an emotional purpose. They orient us, offering a coherent backdrop to the lives we lead and the decisions we need to make.

The Future Is In Meaning

We got into all of this at our presentation. We also discussed the importance of having a unifying idea to hold your story together and arranging all of the data points into a story structure that supports that underlying concept. And to make things concrete, we showed three real-world examples of meaningful storytelling in market research.

The crowd was totally engaged. But what really got their attention was a claim we made at the end, that the future of our industry is not in data, or insights, but in meaning.

For years market researchers have understood their role as providing insights. In general, this term has meant a set of answers to questions posed in a study. Insights are an abstraction from the data, and they are multiple. We argue that there is a higher level of abstraction that provides meaning. If we consider insights to be a subset of the raw data, themselves data points, we can then filter and/or synthesize those insights into a story built upon a single unifying idea.

This higher level of abstraction offers marketers a simpler understanding of the data. It is also easier to communicate throughout an organization and, most important, to act upon. This is crucial today because of what one can call insight creep. On account of the vast amount of data now available, and the many new digital tools that can quickly convert these into insights, market researchers can find themselves awash not only in data, but in a sea of insights.

In addition, attributing value to one insight vs. another, or to a group of insights vs. the whole set, i.e., finding the meaning within the insights, is a fundamentally human endeavor. What flesh-and-blood market researchers can bring to the table, and what even the most sophisticated machines cannot, is an interpretation of the insights into something that has genuine meaning for human beings and their businesses.

A Meaningful Time Was Had By All

So we ended our talk with an affirmation of humans as story tellers and meaning makers. And we’re proud to say it was a hit. A great number of the attendees joined us at the RTi booth later that afternoon, and the following day, to learn more.

We enjoyed meeting new people and sharing what we know about answering the question “What does it all mean?” We suggested they check out our new online course “From Data To Meaning | Storytelling For Market Research.”

We recommend you do, too. It’s guaranteed to mean a lot. And we’ve just learned that the presentation was the highest rated of the conference!