12 MIN READ

How to Tell Your Insights’ Story

Charlotte Duff

Pitch It: The Business Case for Customer Salience

As insight experts, we understand the power of insights, their inherent value in key decision-making...

7 MIN READ

Emily James

    If you search "storytelling in insight" on any search engine, you get lots of results as to WHY we should be using storytelling within insight, but very little explaining how to go about doing it.

    Storytelling isn't just reporting a project. It's not analysis, it's not the creation of a PowerPoint report or a video reel - those are the outputs at the end. Storytelling is finding a way to bring your analyses to life and making them compelling so that your audience connects with them.

    It isn't a scientific skill as most research skills are; storytelling is an art. There is no right or wrong way to go about it, but there are several skills that go into the curation of a great story. Skills that you learn and develop each time you use them. Over time, you will become more comfortable applying these storytelling skills and confident enough to develop your own approaches. So, this is my practical guide as to how I go about telling my insight stories.

    Start at the End

    So, while this isn’t directly a part of the storytelling process, I believe it makes the process a whole lot easier if you think about the story and output you want at the end at the very beginning of the research experience before you’ve even started to put together research tasks that collect your data.

    Think about what you might need to help your story when you're designing both the methodology and the research materials. Is it charts of data, photos to illustrate, heat maps to draw the audience’s eye, or video footage to give that consumer point of view? Make sure you design the research experience to get the output you need at the end.

    We are very good at designing research materials with our audience in mind, insight storytelling needs the same considerations. We don't all connect with the same fiction books in the same way, and won't with insight, so think about who you are presenting to when you are crafting your stories.

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    It's easy to understand why storytelling is an important skill for insight experts - but how do we implement it well in our insight delivery to stakeholders?

    The Importance of Drafting Plans

    When writing a book, a writer goes through a process of prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. The process isn’t always linear and they may move back and forwards between the different steps as they need to, but the first stages are very much about thinking and getting their thoughts onto paper.

    Replicate that in your insight storytelling, and one of my top tips is don't open your final output programme until you have your story drafted. If I start writing straight into PowerPoint, I spend more time trying to fit my story into the structure that PowerPoint gives, rather than trying to build my story and use PowerPoint to bring it to life. It dulls my creativity, I can end up trying to make a round peg fit into a square hole.

    Instead, start at the prewriting stage. Start with a blank piece of paper or a blank screen, then bring together your research team and start discussing the analysis. What have you learnt, what do you already know from other projects for the same client, the industry, other industries, general consumer behaviour, and your own experiences? These all need to come together so that we can understand the story we're going to tell.

    I've been involved in developing new researchers throughout my career, and one of the main things I tell anyone new to insight is that research isn't a one-person job. You need to be able to bounce ideas around with someone at all stages of the research experience, but for storytelling, this is particularly key.

    Once you have done that, you are in a position to start drafting. At this stage, the drafting is about bringing the ideas together and organising the message into an order that makes sense, and that a reader will be able to understand. For example, all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and our insight stories shouldn't be any different. During this drafting stage, we should make sure that our insight story has a beginning, middle and end.

    Personally, I do most of my drafting in Notepad so that I don't get distracted by formatting when jotting down key subjects and ideas. Post-it notes work well as well, but the key is being able to move things around a develop them as you need when you edit your draft. At this draft stage, it's about enabling creativity, not sticking to rigidity. Remember, it doesn’t need to be right the first time, and won’t be. You will need to edit and refine the draft until it's the best it can be.

    Once the draft is ready, always edit and revise your story. Only when you are happy with the story as a whole, do you build the final output and communicate it to stakeholders.

    Develop the Plot

    Every book, play, and film has plot points that help us tell the story - it's a technique from the creative industries that we can steal to help structure our insights into a proper story. For this, we need to consider the story the insights are telling, and which insights are the most impactful, then use those as plot points to communicate the story engagingly - then we have a better chance of driving stakeholder action.

    When I tell a story, I like to create chapters of insight. Each chapter opens with an insight statement, with some data points backing it up, and then the rest of the chapter is dedicated to exploring that insight, the influence it has over customer behaviours and what impact that should have on the business (through personalised recommendations).

    Insight statements are about interpretation, not the findings. Each statement explores what the research means to the organisation, but don’t fall victim to the trap of simply describing the results of the research. The data itself goes into the chapters to help explain and root the insight statement in reality to build the picture. Don't get lost in reams of data. Ultimately, we should be able to take the insight statements at the end and still be able to understand the story without the additional data points.

    Don’t Forget the World

    Worldbuilding is an important element in creative writing and using this as a starting point for your story is helpful.

    If worldbuilding is a new concept to you like it was to me when I started storytelling, then let me explain. It's about understanding (or in the case of creative writing, actually creating) the world in which your story is set, how that impacts character behaviours and actions, the customs followed, the language used, food eaten, religions worshipped, the technology used, etc. All of these aspects form great influential aspects of customer lives and influence their behaviours. Behavioural science methods have been slowly integrated into market research processes to help us understand this side of our participants’ lives; so while worldbuilding is a new concept, the theory behind it should be relatively familiar.

    Take a survey methodology, those questions you thought you were asking for profiling help with your worldbuilding, and so does all the context that the research team brings to those discussions I talked about earlier. Understanding and communicating the worldly contexts that influence customer behaviour can uncover new insights when cross-referenced with the data generated in other research tasks.

    Build the Drama

    When we think about the mediums of entertainment we typically pay the most attention to, most have some drama or tension to keep us enthralled because we want to see it resolved. Insight stories don't need to be dull, they can have drama too; they can have shock, they can have tension, they can raise eyebrows, build intrigue and make people laugh.

    If you go into a project with some hypotheses that are proven incorrect, don't ignore them, report them. This can be a source of tension and drama for your stakeholders. And sometimes finding no difference is more interesting than finding a difference when you expected one. If there's something that will challenge the organisation, don't sugarcoat it, highlight it instead because that will be more important to stakeholders than any research that backs up theories.

    There are narrative techniques that we can incorporate into our research storytelling, just as an author would in fiction. Common techniques that work well in insight stories include the use of backstories, foreshadowing, red herrings and plot twists (especially good when you are going to be disproving a hypothesis).

    Capture the audience's attention through narrative hooks, something that is especially useful in the hybrid working world. The use of Teams and Zoom means that often people are multi-tasking when you’re presenting to them and using a narrative hook can snap their attention fully back to you and your insight story.

    The end of a story can also benefit from a few narrative techniques. The cost-of-living crisis has given many opportunities for using cliffhangers and ticking time bomb scenarios within insight storytelling. Using these can really help drive action within an organisation.

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    From building engaging tension to worldbuilding and plot development, there are some great creative writing techniques to tell your insights story.

    And This is Where the Story Ends

    As I mentioned earlier, I don’t open my output software until the very end and only when I am happy with the draft I have built and at the stage of publishing.

    Knowing my story, having a clear order, and knowing what data is being displayed, in which order and how, makes the actual build of the output a lot quicker.

    I can focus solely on how I display the data in a way that will make it easy to digest and understand, how to make the key data points land best with the audience. I can go through and dot the i's and cross the t's.

    Epilogue (the Storyteller’s Appendix)

    As an epilogue to this story, I'm going to end with the fact that an appendix is your friend when storytelling.

    I mentioned earlier about avoiding having reams of data in each chapter, but we've all been sat in debriefs and have been asked about specific questions, or cross-tabs. We don't want to miss out on an opportunity to present the data to those who have the appetite for it, but we also don't want those who need the story to compel them to act to come away with data overload – we need them to remember our story so that they are more likely to act on it in the future when the decisions call for it.

    Have your main output as the story and then the supporting evidence as an appendix. Those who want to see the detail within the data can browse at their leisure, but it means that you focus the main output is your story.

    PowerPoint is great for providing a structure for people to follow, but Notepad is good for getting the content right. So using both might be the best option? Once the draft structure and plan are sorted then we can get to the writing part.

    Insights Empowerment

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