Why You Should Be A Storyteller, Not a Data Presenter

Filed Under: Best Practices, Market Research, Reporting, Qualitative Research


Robert Relihan

You are at a party, standing in the kitchen with a small circle of friends. Someone is relating the latest bit of gossip. You listen with rapt attention. You are at once surprised and knowing. You are shocked and involved. At the end, you feel changed and in possession of a new vision of your friend, the subject of the juicy…story. Yes, you were listening to a story. Now, compare your feeling from the kitchen experience to that of reading the typical research report or listening to the standard presentation. Ugh!

We are being told to be storytellers. In fact, storytelling is everywhere. Storytelling has evolved into a model for how a brand relates with its potential consumers, even business consumers. There is even a “theory” to storytelling. But, when we sit in the trenches with a mound of data and are asked to be storytellers, we may shutter. Sometimes it feels like we are just being told “don’t bore me.” How do I become a storyteller and not just a mere presenter?

First you need to recognize that there are different stort types — mysteries, sagas, romances, etc. Heroes overcome and triumph, sometimes by guile, sometimes by strength. And then again, sometimes a story isn’t so much about a hero as it is about a group that comes together and forges a new identity — sometimes a family, sometimes a nation.

There may be different types of stories, but they all have beginnings, middles, and ends. A presentation often feels like a collection of discrete arguments, each slide meant to prove a point. But a story is like a river, connected at all times — through themes, through characters — to both the beginning and the end. Storytelling is about discovery; storytelling is immersive.

For those of you who were not raised as storytellers, here are a few specific tips:

  • Remember, whatever you say connects what came before with what comes next. Telling stories is all about transitions. In telling a story you are not making an argument; you are taking the audience on a journey of discovery.
  • Stories have a focus, a main character with whom the audience can relate. So, give your data a character that moves from the beginning to the final insight. The audience should always be aware of this “character” and her place in the story. Sometimes, this means personifying the consumer, the brand, the positioning, or whatever. And, it can mean personifying the audience, casting them in the role of a hero on the quest of insight.
  • Leave room for surprises; no story is exciting without it. An insight is simply a finding made new and exciting by a sense of discovery and surprise.
  • The corollary of surprise is anticipation. Tell your story as if there is always something better, more interesting and valuable around the corner. When you reach the “end,” would you rather your audience feel they have been presented with a logical conclusion or experienced the explosion of a new insight?
  • When I talk to consumers, I encourage them to find metaphors within themselves. Metaphors give voice to truths and bring richness to the experience. Moreover, a great metaphor is memorable.

We can all become better storytellers by being attuned to our culture. Stories are the ways we all tell the truths about ourselves without realizing it. And, just as in society, stories are what connect the reality of consumers to the needs of marketers.

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