Researchers may think they are in the business of delivering information, but what they are really paid to do, and increasingly so, is tell stories that persuade and ultimately influence action.
Storytelling is a big topic and the word “story” is open to interpretation. For our purposes, let’s define it as an explanation, an abstraction from the data that provides a hypothesis and structures information in a way that gives it meaning.
Start With Storytelling In Mind
With the story central to our mission, it is essential that we address storytelling early in the process. That means adjusting our mindset to what it is we’re about to do. Rather than think we’re undertaking a “research project,” it’s better to conceive of it as a storytelling project for which research is central. From the beginning, we should keep the end deliverable in mind: a story told in a particular medium, be it an essay, executive summary, PowerPoint presentation or video.
Be Imaginative Up Front
As we design our studies, we must imagine what kind of story we might end up with. This can affect the kinds of questions we ask and spark avenues of inquiry we might never have thought of otherwise. We must also envision what kinds of answers we might get and what kind of story those answers could tell. There’s no need to worry that this imaginative exercise will bias our perspective when we receive our results. Rather, we will be in a freer, more flexible frame of mind when it is time to turn the data into a meaningful narrative.
Craft Your Story Around An Idea
Legendary historian Arthur Toynbee claimed that a story is not just “one damned thing after another.” Instead, a story is a selection of those “damned things” organized in a way that supports a unifying central idea. And what we mean by an “idea” in storytelling is an assertion or proposition, something that can be argued with. For example, the statement “Millennials are nostalgic for a world they’ve never experienced” is a story idea. “Insights about Millennials” is not.
Tell Me Something I Don’t Know
When looking for your central idea, be alert to data points that are counterintuitive or contrary to some of the story hypotheses you came up with early in the process. Stories are especially compelling and valuable when they open our eyes to a genuinely fresh perspective. Paradoxically, such a perspective doesn’t necessarily have to be novel. It might be, for example, that in a market where everything is changing (or so it is believed) the most remarkable news is that a crucial set of variables isn’t changing at all.
Look For The Emotion
People are emotional creatures, and the best stories resonate with us because they strike an emotional chord. It’s worth it, therefore, to design your studies to include questions that might reveal your respondents’ emotional motivations. Even if such questions are not included in the study, on the back end it is valuable to theorize about the underlying impulses that might be giving rise to a particular data set.
At The End, It’s All About Meaning
As we said earlier, stories not only explain the world, but more importantly, they give it meaning. So as researchers, we are not mere collectors of data. We are explainers and meaning-makers.
This is crucial to understand in today’s world. Technology will continue to advance. More and more gadgets will collect larger and larger amounts of data with little need for human intervention. And artificial intelligence might even begin to reveal the kinds of patterns that can form the basis for stories. But only humans can choose which, if any, of those patterns is meaningful. Only we can turn data into something of genuine human value. And that might be the most important story of all.
For more on how to construct a story, please download our eBook: Powerful Storytelling for Insights Professionals.