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Marketing research reports tend toward data-laden step-by-step arguments. Detailed discussion about specific data may - or, to the frustration of clients, may not - lead to a conclusion about the overall business implications of the analysis.

This traditional narrative approach is under pressure from many quarters: a sound bite culture; the sometimes cryptic style of text messaging, Twitter, and email; an increasing reliance on visual display over written exposition; and a general disinterest in, and even distrust of, data and evidence.

How should a report be structured that has the power to change minds and generate consensus?

Many believe that the key lies in more and better graphics and everyone seems to call upon Tufte as a guide to graphic design. His The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (1983), Minard's famous graph of Napoleon's march to Moscow and its aftermath, and Tufte's later books can be found, I think, in every MR industry office, and his influence has been largely responsible for the industry's infatuation with graphing data.

Yet the more we try to create engaging representations of our data with novel graphical treatments, the more we run the risk of confusing those we hope to excite with our results.

This seems to be an impasse. To grab the attention of an audience that may not already be involved deeply requires novelty, but novelty impairs communication. Now what?

The Poynter Institute is a journalism school in St. Petersburg, and they've been conducting studies on the impact of layout and design on newspaper reading since 1990. In 2006, they used three different formats to set up the same news story about bird flu, and then tested the effects of the designs. The information in all three versions was identical. (The three prototypes have apparently been removed from the Poynter web site, which indicates that they have been published in book form.)

The Institute describes them this way (emphasis added): "Prototype 1 was conventional, with headline, narrative and photograph ... Prototype 2 contained a narrative story with some of the information broken out in a map and some in a fact box. Prototype 3 was very visual with no traditional narrative. It featured . . . a map, a Q&A, a numbers chart and other graphic storytelling."

The Poynter study used eye tracking to follow what people were looking at and for how long, and they also tested recall of the stories. Miner again: "Readers read the prototypes for five minutes and then were quizzed on bird flu. Readers of Prototype 3, the one that did away with narrative, got the most answers right. What's more, these readers came away most interested in the subject of bird flu and most open to learning more."

This is an amazing result: a non-narrative presentation of the disjointed components of a story generated more reader involvement and better recall of the facts.

This has several implications for MR reporting:


  • It isn't novelty, "creative" graphics, or bright colors that compel attention; it's a clear presentation of all of the elements of the story.

  • We are shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to lead an audience through our arguments in step-by-step fashion. This is yet another indictment of PowerPoint, with its bullet-pointed lists on slide after slide. We need to develop a "collage" mentality and present the parts of the story simultaneously.

  • Our reports should encourage a kind of do-it-yourself involvement with the story we want to tell, encouraging the reader to impose order on them. Discussion is likely to be more powerful than exposition. Anything that encourages the audience to work things out for themselves will generate involvement and recall. This means laying out all the steps to the conclusion, but letting the conclusion itself be discovered.

  • We needn't constantly come up with new graphic formats to present the data we include; in fact, we can rely on the familiarity of standard
    graphic forms to enhance the clarity of the presentation. This doesn't mean we can't use more creative graphics; only that we don't need to rely on them to do the job alone.

  • When we use the "infographics" approach, we should avoid a linear narrative, and, instead, strive for a presentation that gives each story element space to breathe and encourages the eye to wander from one to the other.

I'll let Miner have the final word: "Enjoyable as it may be, linear narrative is nowhere near as predictably efficient as is deconstruction of a story into its...components...the reader creates the narrative rather than having the writer impose it on him or her."

PS: It is either ironic or pathetic that this post is in the form of an essay.

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