For many researchers, the term “storytelling” is a little annoying. Partly because there is so much buzz about the term, and partly because it makes our research seem too simple, even childish. When many of us think about “stories”, we think about Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, or Jack In The Beanstalk. Or, perhaps some of us think about classic stories like The Odyssey or Hamlet. We associate stories with works of fiction full of characters and dramatic plot lines, so we don’t fully embrace the idea of telling stories in our research reports.
I think the term "storytelling" trips us up. Maybe instead we should focus on "storyfinding". We have to first “find” the story that exists in our data and in deeper data relationships. Once we find this story, we can communicate it in a way that is memorable and meaningful. While we may not be able to create memorable characters or dramatic settings like the classics… we can share great research stories through informative themes, compelling structure and entertaining tone. Below, are 5 tips for how to “find” better stories in your research:
Do your homework: Research stories need to be compelling and interesting. They can’t be a rehash of information that clients already know, so before you even start your story (and your proposal for that matter)… ask your clients three things: 1) what do they already know? 2) what do they need to find out? 3) what do they anticipate the answers might be (or might not be)?
2) Prioritize what is important: Once you understand what your client is trying to learn, you don’t want to dump a bunch of data on your audience. You don’t need to report on every question in your questionnaire. Instead, share only the most relevant information. You need to know what is truly meaningful and what is superfluous and potentially distracting. The more data you add, the more confusing it can be.
3) Hunt for deeper connections: The best research stories arise when researchers tap into hidden data relationships. When they examine how the various data points relate to each other and what new and interesting patterns emerge. As you are analyzing your results, always ask yourself why? What's the reason? Why should my client care? Is there a deeper meaning I can share?
4) Write a brief: A brief is simply a single paragraph overview of your study. This will force you to focus on the key insights and arrange them in a way that builds and flows nicely. It essentially gives you a soundtrack for your full report to follow. It is also helpful to show the brief to others on your team and to your client. This feedback will help you understand the gaps you need to fill in.
5) End With Impact: While research stories may not always lend themselves to great story arcs, one way to tie your narrative together is to end with impact. Circle back and emphasize the core message and point out ways to capitalize and act on the main theme. What is the one thing you want your audience to learn? How do you want them to leave the room feeling? What would you do if you were in their shoes? End with impact.