Storytelling for Researchers: Lessons from 100+ Hours of Filmmaking
Before my fascination with marketing began, I grew up determined to become a movie director. I spent hours with a small home camcorder, friends and a script - always trying to find the most interesting stories to tell.
Eventually my passion for film-making morphed into a broader set of creative activities. But I liked to try to retain some amount of affinity for the craft. Throughout university, this manifested as promotional videos for the projects of friends - whether these were businesses, creative endeavours, blogs or non-profit ventures. Instead of creating fictional stories, I was crafting them from facts and reality.
For the past few years, however, I’ve been somewhat out of practice. So, when the FlexMR team were given the opportunity to create video reports based on our recent projects for a global consumer goods firm - I jumped at the chance to dust off the director’s cap, dig out the clapperboard and boot up Premiere Pro.
Let’s rewind a little first though. The brief of this project was to distil over 4 hours of focus group footage and 30 voxpops into a single five minute summary. The research? Exploration of a new product concept. The audience? Insight and marketing teams that would be taking the taking the concept through to the next stage of development. The aim? To present the themes and findings in a visually and emotionally engaging way - whatever they may be.
A tough one, to say the least. But a fantastic learning experience, and the perfect opportunity to connect the dots from one creative domain to another, more strategic mode of operation. So, here’s what I learnt about creating stories that engage stakeholders from the resulting 100+ hours of video editing.
Findings, Narrative, Mechanics
With nearly five hours of footage to sift through, knowing where to start was perhaps the most daunting task. How do you break into a monolith of data and compress it down into its most important 1%? Well, for me, the answer was a simple equation.
It sounds simple. Deliberately so. But it’s not just the components of this equation that are important. The order plays an equal role. The findings come first. Personally, I found it incredibly helpful to shut out all the other elements until I had watched the footage through in full and found what the key outcomes were. Only then, does it make sense to move onto the narrative, and eventually the mechanics.
For reference, here’s how I defined each of these terms:
Findings: The key pieces of information that the research revealed are
Narrative: The order in which information is presented, ideally in an emotionally engaging way
Mechanics: The clips, graphics, titles, music, transitions etc. that bring the narrative to life
The most difficult stage out of this is, as you might expect, is the narrative stage. To me, this felt like having a jigsaw puzzle where every piece can connect to any other. But each time the puzzle is completed, it tells a slightly different story. Some inherently better than others. So how can I be certain I found the best narrative to tell? Well, I can’t be certain that I did. That’s part and parcel of any creative medium. But there are some things that help nudge towards a better narrative. These are some of my favourites:
Try to empathise with the audience; constantly ask what information is most important to them
Find the opening and conclusion early on. Both should allude to points greater than any other
Oscillate between emotional highs and lows to build tension and intrigue
Think about what story archetype and narrative structure best fit the tale you’re trying to tell
With Enough Footage, You Can Tell Any Story
This personal finding was both the most freeing and the most concerning. With over five hours of footage to work with, it became clear early on that it would be easy to find only clips that supported further product development. But it would be equally easy to construct a montage of clips that only cautioned against product development.
As ever, the truth is rarely straightforward - and the real answer has too much nuance to be truly compelling. This is where the medium of film-making felt most at odds with the strategic goals of research. The most engaging story would certainly have been one which takes a consistent side. But that wouldn’t have been reflective of the whole truth.
It’s an easy pit to fall into. Although by starting with the findings and ensuring each of these are reflected in the narrative, it can be avoided.
Tension and Humour are Key Emotional Drivers
When thinking (or even writing) about stakeholder engagement - I often find myself slipping into quite clinical terms, as if it’s something scientific to be dissected, studied and understood. It was only through experimentation at both the narrative and mechanical stages of the process that I found what felt to be real emotional hooks that would keep people watching and listening.
The two that appeared by far most effective were tension and humour. Not too dissimilar to the classic dyad of tragedy and comedy. One instils a sense of emotional strain that makes us think about our own views seriously, while the other alleviates emotion and brings relief. A powerful combination.
BUT! There are many ways to integrate tension and comedy into a story. I’d argue that one such way should never be approached. Tension and humour can be at the expense of the audience, the narrative, the product - but never the participants. Regardless of the other potentially harmful consequences, humour and tension created at participant expense alienates audiences from them and makes it much harder to empathise with the points of view portrayed.
Mechanics are the Figurative Icing on the Cake
Apologies for the severely overused metaphor - but there is an important point to make here. A cake is functional whether it has icing or not; it can be eaten at the very least. But it lacks a certain aesthetic wow factor that only the icing can provide. That might be modest, or it might be hugely significant. I think this is the perfect way of characterising what the mechanical elements add a visual report.
Take, for example, music choice. Once the editing process was near completion, it was time to find an audio track to underscore the speech with. The product didn’t feel particularly lacking at this stage. In fact, most tracks I tested detracted something - whether it was something about the mood that was lost, or the music overshadowing the information being delivered verbally.
So, I slept on it - and the next morning came back to the office with a new idea. Rather than corporate, pop or upbeat tracks, what about taking a cue from documentaries? I shifted my search to focus on the type of track found in educational documentaries - one which invokes a learning mindset. A type of music that was slower, more deliberate, mixing synths with orchestral elements. And… it worked - perfectly. This single track added more to final product than I had imaged; helping to get audiences into the right mindset, focus, concentrate, think and engage.
That’s just one example. The point is; even once the findings and narrative are sorted - be sure to pay close attention to each of the mechanical elements of a visual report. These are the small things that will make a subtle but big impact on your audience.
I’ve always been a big believer in the power of visual storytelling. And I’ve always enjoyed the craft of film-making. It’s also something I’m glad the research industry recognises as an impactful means of delivering insight. But, having gone through the proverbial wringer myself, it’s something I think we still have a lot to learn about.
At times, the goals of emotionally engaging stakeholders and delivering truthful insight can seem at odds with one another. Then, there are the pitfalls along the way that can hinder us from creating really gripping stories. And, of course, there’s the inevitable question of time; the film production process does not lend itself to an agile environment. So, the choice of when we should bring this tool out of our box is important too.
But, at the end of these fifteen hundred words - I hope I’ve managed to lift the veil slightly on how insights professionals, teams and agencies can create video outputs that do justice to the fascinating information we are frequently given the opportunity to present. Over to you…
Chris is experienced in marketing strategy and brand development, which he uses to skilfully guide the FlexMR brand to its full potential. Chris works hard maximising opportunities and ensuring the brand’s offering is relevant and appealing to insights professionals. You can follow Chris on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.