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Let Data Storytelling Boost the Impact of Your Research

Written by Alida

Published July 27, 2023


Research is just half the battle. Stakeholders won’t be pushed into action if the insights don’t reach them at an emotional level.


In a perfect world, research debriefs should be the force driving decision-making in a business.

All too often they don't: senior stakeholders rarely make the decisions one expects on the back of research alone.

To solve this issue, researchers must realize their job is to make things happen, not just to share insights. A good comparison is someone looking for a drill bit at a hardware store. The goal isn’t the purchase of the drill bit, but to drill a hole in the wall to hang a picture.

When a company hires a research team, the goal of the organization isn’t to buy customer insights but to make informed business decisions. In turn, these decisions should  drive actions that generate better business results.

Focusing on customers' insights alone often leads to suboptimal communication, presentations that are long, dull, complicated, and ambiguous. The simpler the message, the better the chances that the stakeholders will hear and act on it.

Researchers find it hard to cut the fine detail because they’re conditioned to believe they have to show their hard work to add value. Equally, they may struggle with presenting how their insights support the overall business’ goals because:

  • they present too many findings;
  • the insights are delivered in a vacuum, without mentioning their impact;
  • researchers are reluctant to fully commit to a recommendation 

Facts are not enough. However great the analysis, stakeholders won’t be inspired to act if the research doesn’t resonate at an emotional level. To be successful, reports and debriefs should go viral within an organization, to be shared and talked about, and to become the basis for a strategy underpinned by insights.


What is data storytelling?

Let’s backtrack a bit: data storytelling is the practice of presenting data and insights in a compelling narrative format that engages and resonates with audiences. Instead of simply sharing data points and statistics, data storytelling involves crafting a cohesive and relatable story around the data to communicate its meaning and significance effectively.

By incorporating a narrative structure, emotions, and context, data storytelling helps make complex information more accessible, memorable, and actionable for decision-makers. It leverages the power of storytelling to create a deeper understanding of the data's implications and drives better-informed and impactful business decisions.


Why is data storytelling important?

Simply reporting customer insights isn't enough: they have to be memorable, moving and galvanizing.

Recent studies have shown that knowledge can be shared more readily if shaped into a story. Basic story structure has been hard boiled into us since an early age. Linking key points to an end makes it easier to remember, understand, and share. In the words of Robert McKee, “the best way to unite an emotion with an idea is to tell a compelling story. In a story, you not only weave a lot of information into the telling but you arouse your listener’s emotions and energy.”


How to story tell with data

For the purposes of sharing insights, a good story

…must take the audience on a journey,

…is short and to the point,

…is easy to communicate and follow,

…sparks emotion within your audience, and

…leaves them with a clear take-out.

Many challenges can be solved by adhering to a structure (beginning, middle, end). When planning a project and the output, one must think of the overall business goal the research is meant to be supporting (product launch, marketing campaign, new customer acquisition).

In research, being “clever” or going on about how much work it took often gets in the way of clarity. Research presentations should take the business on a journey from A to B by the way of a clear way forward, namely a solution that becomes the guiding light and the main thrust of the story.

The story must support that solution as simply and clearly as possible, ideally with no more than three to four big insights or ideas (more than that would be a struggle to remember, particularly when competing with deluges of information at work). The story must also be concise and easy to communicate so people can spread it around the business. Everything that doesn’t support the solution is clutter.

The most effective way to simplify a story is to have a big idea and unpack it. Mynto’s Pyramid Principle suggests establishing a clear hierarchy (big point, supporting points, sub points, supporting evidence). It encourages researchers to group their thinking and turn disparate bits of evidence into a small number of themes.

One of the advantages of this pyramid principle is that it forces the researcher to summarize all the details and, if pressed, tell the story in just five minutes. This approach is likely to make the transference of information more effective.


Data-driven emotional appeal

Emotional messages are known to override rational barriers. This is important as business stakeholders know change comes at a cost. Given that businesses are swimming in data, for a story to be impactful, it needs to create a sense of anxiety and/or excitement.

The classic story structure has drama built into it:

  • Act I: Relatable and likable hero: Describe the situation. End with an inciting incident (a competitor enters the market, a new trend takes hold) that disrupts the status quo and creates the need for action.
  • Act II: Encounters roadblocks: To restore balance, the protagonist must face adversity (work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions) and ultimately discover a way forward based on insights.
  • Act III: Emerges transformed: Balance is restored or the protagonist is changed. This could be the launch of a new product that meets the changing needs of customers, repositioning the brand in a more attractive territory, etcetera.

For research to be truly valued, it needs to be seen as a drive of change. As the founder partner of DOB Bill Bernbach put it, “The truth isn’t the truth until people believe you, and they can’t believe you if they don’t know what you’re saying, and they can’t know what you’re saying if they don’t listen to you, and they won’t listen to you if you’re not interesting, and you won’t be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly.”

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