How 4 Basic Narrative Structures Can Help You Tell Better Insight Stories

Grayling Ferguson

Pitch It: The Business Case for Customer Salience

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


Emily James

    Naturally, research insights hold some level of intrigue without having to try too hard. Usually work is commissioned to delve into areas that are interesting to a business or individual or that they need to address. However,  it is very easy to fall into a trap when creating research presentations to produce a report that is full of graphs and tables which are typically deemed useful, but in reality, result in information overload.

    Don’t get me wrong - graphs and tables are very useful (for researchers especially), and can be used effectively to demonstrate a point. However, they should be used with purpose, as part of a wider picture.

    All great presentations must be engaging, eye-catching and thought provoking, and research presentations are no different. Just because we are presenting data in our research reports, does not mean it has to be dull – in fact it’s quite the opposite. Research findings should by default be intriguing and exciting, because ultimately you are about to find out the ending to a story that has been created by real people who have let you into their mind to explore their thoughts, perceptions and opinions.

    In this blog, I will discuss how narrative structures can help shape research presentations and findings to create interesting and enjoyable reports. Because let’s face it – no one wants to be presenting to a room full of people to see eyes looking down at phones or laptop screens!

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    Research insights hold a level of intrigue - but, it's easy to fall into the trap of producing presentation reports full of graphs and tables. These narrative structures are key to unlocking insight potential.

    The 3 Act Narrative

    Every story is made up of 3 points: a beginning, middle and end. The 3 Act narrative structure breaks the story into 3 sections labelled the set-up, confrontation and resolution, which break-up into the beginning, middle and end of a story nicely. In market research, this structure is easy to apply to our reports:

    • Beginning = Set-up. This is where we identify the ‘what’, what are we researching, what is our objective?
    • Middle = Confrontation. This is the main body of the research and insight addressing the various viewpoints from the research questions.
    • End = Resolution. The objectives are addressed and the insights are presented to complete the presentation.

    This is a simple yet effective way of presenting research and can reach the key points of the project as required. However, for some objectives and studies, it can be too simplistic and so we must look at other options for presenting our findings that explore the findings in more detail.

    The 5 Act Narrative

    The 5 Act narrative structure is similar to the 3 Act, but it is broken down a little more to provide a more complex plot structure. The main elements of this structure are: prologue, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. The 5 Act structure is often observed in William Shakespeare’s work.

    Again, applying this to a research presentation is quite straightforward and we can breakdown our aspects of the project and findings into this structure:

    • Prologue – setting the scene, introducing the characters, and conflict is introduced. In our research report, introduction of what we are researching, what participant method we are using and our conflict – the objectives – what are we trying to resolve?
    • Rising action – building of the narrative and story where complications may arise. In our research report, what happened when we asked the research questions.
    • Climax – turning point of the story, highest point of suspense. In our research point the use of conflicting information and comparisons can be used to create anticipation and suspense as to what the outcome will be from the research.
    • Falling action - the story is coming to an end where any plot twists are revealed. In a research presentation the findings are untangled and a path to the answer to the objective is in sight.
    • Dénouement – the story comes to an end and the moral of the story is revealed. In a research report, the active insights are revealed and the researcher presents follow-on actions as a result of the findings.

    The 5 Act structure lends well to more longitudinal studies where lots of data has been collected or projects where multiple research methodologies have been used. These elements can be used to create a more in-depth plot for your presentation and, depending on the outcome of your research, create a conflict to build the climax points.

    The Hero’s Journey

    The hero’s journey is a narrative structure more flexible than the 3 Act or 5 Act. The principle of the hero’s journey is a circular plot with many points throughout that can differ in timing and structure - but the main plot throughout this type of story always follows the hero on their quest, from the very start to the journey's (usually satisfactory) resolution.

    The hero’s journey is often a venture into an unknown world where a new skill or discovery is made. The hero will overcome something – a crisis or key decision, or discover something about themselves that would have previously remained unknown if it were not for them entering the unknown world. However, even though the story ends where it began, the hero is transformed - they are forever changed by their experience.

    The key concept of this narrative applies to all research reports in one way or another in that we begin at the objectives, move through the findings to discover new opinions and points of view, and then after looking at the evidence, arrive back at the objectives with some insight into how to move forward. Researchers could use this structure in reports to mix-up the order of presenting things, so rather than having the points laid-out like the 3 or 5 Act approaches, the report could delve into any trials and obstacles the research revealed and different points to come full circle back to the objectives and key actionable insights.

    From Rags to Riches

    That leads us into the fourth and final narrative structure I will cover; Rags to Riches. This again is a popular narrative to use, especially in fairy tales, which shows someone going from a bad situation to a happy ending.

    These stories are often about people going from being poor to wealthy (think of Cinderella!), but how they get there is open to a variety of factors. The ultimate goal of this storyline is to inspire; showing that no matter how bad a situation can get, they have the power to turn it into a good one.

    Of course, we want our research to inspire the business or individual who has commissioned it to either delve deeper into their topic of interest or action the insights that have come out of the original project. Therefore, the principle of this narrative is essential to important insight delivery of any project, the key with this structure is engaging in the story enough to feel inspired at the end, whichever way you choose to present your findings along the way.

    Non-Linear Narrative Types

    As demonstrated above, all four narrative structures can be utilised within our research reports to create better stories and more exciting presentations. As well as narrative structures, there are narrative types used in storytelling that can determine how the story is presented and the order in which the narrative flows. The 4 narrative types are:

    1. Linear narratives
    2. Nonlinear narrative
    3. Interactive narration
    4. Interactive narrative

    A linear narrative is perhaps most applicable to a research setting, and is a story that moves from the beginning to the middle and finally to the end. Flashbacks can be included in a linear narrative but the story typically moves in a specific order. We often experience a lot of data and points in a research report and so keeping those in a logical order makes the most sense in our presentation context. However, researchers can use the narrative types listed above in conjunction with the structures I have outlined to find the best balance for their research findings and create different ways of presenting research and findings in interesting ways.

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    Incorporating the right narrative structure and type throughout your presentations gives you the opportunity to present with purpose and will help keep your audience with you throughout the journey.

    When delivering insight, there must be something actionable at the end of the narrative. These actionable insights are based on the findings of the research and allow the business or individual commissioning the research to consider/make decisions, this is arguably the most important section of the report. However, if you have lost the audience throughout the rest of the presentation, all of your hard work in providing context and evidence leading up to those crucial points would be wasted.

    Incorporating narrative throughout your presentations gives you the opportunity to present with purpose and will help keep your audience with you throughout the journey, right until that crucial end point where you make the big reveal – regardless of which technique you have used to get there.

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