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Where do you begin with market research storytelling?

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Why read this? : We look at how storytelling works in market research. Learn how tools like story types and structure help you tell a more compelling research story. Read this for ideas on mastering the art of market research storytelling. 

The lights dimmed.

The awed audience gazed on in wonder at the screen of the mystical wielder of the PowerPoint deck before them. 

“We’ve travelled far to bring you great insights from the mysterious world of your target audience,” says the confident, charismatic, and not at all nervous or nerdy market researcher at the front of the room.

“Wow”, thinks the audience.

Woman on stage holding a piece of paper presenting to an audience in an auditorium with a sign saying product school in the background

“But before we share these stellar secrets with you. Before we make you feel all warm and tingly about what this will do for your business. Let’s use the first 20 slides to go over the research methodology again”.

“Urgh” goes the audience as energy vanishes from the room. 

This happens a lot in market research. It’s like being made to watch all the DVD extras before you get to watch the movie. Nobody wants that. But researchers do it all the time, and it drives us crazy.

You listen to stories to hear about the hero, not how the story was written. In market research storytelling, that means you focus on the customer, not the research process. That’s what the market research audience wants. It’s the deep insights from the customer which set up the story for the marketing team and the marketing plan.  

CMOs want you to be good at storytelling

This insight hasn’t come out of thin air.

We saw some LinkedIn chatter from one of the sessions at the Research Society’s recent annual conference. Some CMOs discussed the skills they most valued in market researchers. 

And once you got past the usual predictable managerial blah phrases like strategic planning, being curious and being passionate, there was that still relatively new chestnut, storytelling

Book open on someone's lap as they read a story, lit by sparkling lights

Given we’ve covered storytelling in previous articles (see storytelling in marketing and the value of storytelling, for example), it got us thinking about how storytelling works for market research. 

Learn storytelling tools

You’d think researchers would find it easy to research storytelling tools, right? Them being researchers and all. But sit through most research debriefs and you get the dullest of stories. Total snooze-fests. There’s often not enough thought goes into what the audience actually wants. 

Audiences want stories to be attention-grabbing. Interesting. Memorable. But most market research storytelling goes over their head rather than into it. But there are storytelling tools you can use to make market research debriefs more meaningful and less mundane.

Story type

Take story types, for example. Christopher Booker’s analysis of the Seven Basic Plots outlines how most stories fit into one of 7 overall themes. 

With a little creative thinking, you can apply any of these to market research results. 

For example, the story could be about the customer taking on a major problem affecting their life (overcoming the monster).

It could tell the story of the customer’s journey (the quest or voyage and return). Or the improvement in their lives they’re looking for (rags to riches)

Woman standing in a poorly lit street at night. She is blowing into her hands which holds a light and some sort of illuminated confetti

Maybe it’s something transformational that happens to them? A rebirth story. A comedy or tragedy. Telling the customer’s story in these sorts of familiar story types helps engage the audience’s emotions. They’re familiar and yet, they also have in-built drama. Tension. Surprise. That’s what you want in a good story.  

The audience is drawn in as they can see themselves in the hero / heroine’s shoes. That’s the essence of what market research storytelling should do.

What market research storytelling usually does

But is that what you get from most market research storytelling? 

Not even close.

What you mostly get is a dry and dull rendition of the researcher’s story. Not the customer’s story.

The aim seems to be to show how much work they’ve done (and what you’re paying for).

But let’s face it. All that stuff should’ve been covered during the brief and proposal. 

Woman wearing smart business suit in front of a laptop looking bored

The market research audience wants to hear about the customer. That’s what they’re paying for. That’s what’s going to grab their attention. 

Most of them don’t care about the introductory waffling about methodology. Or the 100+ pages of charts, diagrams and commentary which drown them in information, rather than telling a compelling story. 

Plus, the story’s big finale should fire the audience up with inspiration about what they need to do for the customer. But too often, it’s a damp squib because the story’s been so badly told. 

Story structure

To avoid this, market researchers should go back to storytelling basics. Start with the story structure, for example. It’s not that hard. 

You have a basic 3-part structure, the beginning, middle and end. These should cover :-

  1. A hero / heroine – that’s the customer.
  2. Facing a problem – that’s the customer’s need or pain point. 
  3. Meets a guide – that’s your brand.
  4. Who comes up with a plan – that’s what your brand does for the customer.
Woman siting in an armchair reading a book titled Storytelling

5. The hero follows a call to action – well, that’s even got the same name in marketing.

6. There are successes and failures until they reach their goal – that’s the customer journey.  

The beginning of market research storytelling

It’s clear from writing advertising and sales copy how important it is to start well. You want your headline and your “opening act” to grab attention. To hook the audience in. 

So you should get right into the customer (the hero, remember?) at the start.

Show us what their problem is. In storytelling terms, this is the inciting incident. It drives them to act. Show us what’s wrong in their world. It shows us what will motivate them to look for solutions. 

The middle of market research storytelling

Then talk about the role the brand plays in guiding the customer towards those solutions. How the brand helps them find the answers they need. 

What steps do they go through? What do they think and feel as they move along the customer journey? How do they make decisions? How do they come up with a “plan” to solve their problem? 

Market researchers should have tons of “material” to choose from to tell these stories. For example, in qualitative research, there’ll be customer quotes and videos of them talking. Look for what customers say that makes their problem easy to visualise and shows the emotional parts of their story.

Problems and emotions add drama and tension to stories. If the problem’s easy to solve (or there’s no problem), that story will be dull.

When we hear a story, we imagine what we’d do if we were in the protagonist’s situation. Market researchers should use that in their storytelling. The whole point of market research is to help you get into the same headspace as the customer. 

The end of market research storytelling

Having held the audience’s attention all the way through, you want to close with a strong ending. A resolution to the customer’s problem.

Where the customer gets what they need. They end at a better place than they were at the beginning of the story. 

That’s the story the market research audience wants to hear. That story helps them work out what’s needed in their marketing planning. The end of the market research story is a call to action to show marketers what they need to do for customers. 

Close up of a delivery driver handing over a cardboard box delivery to a customer

When and where you tell the story

Moving on from story type and structure, next you think about context. When and where you tell the market research story. As per our market research in the marketing plan guide, you usually need 3 different versions of the story :-

  • the elevator pitch version. 
  • the edited version. 
  • the bells and whistles version.

The elevator pitch version

The elevator pitch version is where you tell the story in as short a time as you can.

Imagine it like the 30-second movie trailer version of your story. (Or the blurb on the back of the book if you’re more of a reader).

When time’s short, you can only cover the most important parts.

You choose your words carefully. Every word counts. You focus on being clear and concise.

Close up of buttons for different floors in an elevator

(If you’re more of a digital person, you can get the same effect by writing a Tweet version of the story). 

For example, this is our elevator pitch for our market research guides :-

“X% of businesses want to get the most out of market research. But most market research online content focuses on how to do market research rather than what to do with it. So we’ll create practical market research content which focuses on how to use market research to drive sales.”

So, here we have a market research fact (X% of businesses want), followed by the action we’ll take to fix it. (create practical market research content). That’s enough detail for an elevator pitch. This is often all many people feel they need to know. A few key points, max. The headline, and what it means for them. If they want to find out more, they can. But the elevator pitch tells them just enough. 

Customers want better pizzas. They want faster delivery. And they want to know when it’ll be delivered. (To use an example from our recent e-Commerce customer journey article). 

Short sentences. Simple words. Easy to understand and remember. 

The edited version

Then you’ve got the edited version of the story.

Think of it as the final cut version of the research. It should be a 20 – 30 minute deck you share with the key stakeholders.

This version has all the highlights but leaves out the more mundane details. 

Those highlights cover the research’s most relevant data, information and insights.

The audience will get enough of the customer’s story to then go build their own story in the marketing plan. That’s the main point of market research storytelling.

So, be ruthless in the edit. Cut things out, or banish them to the appendix. You need to be clear and concise so your story’s easy to understand and actionable. Action’s key here. Action drives a story forward. This edited version has to get down to the nitty-gritty of what should be done. 

The 10-20-30 rule

One way to “force” this clarity and concision is to use Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30  presentation rule.  

You limit your story to 10 slides. The story can be told in 20 minutes (allowing time for questions after). And you use a minimum font size of 30. 

Those limits force you to be concise.

It’s like a forced edit of your story. You can only show the best bits, like the bits someone would be happy reading on their mobile phone.

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

Business Model Canvas

Another way to “force” clarity and concision and bring the story to life is to use a template like the business model canvas

It’s a concise single-page template to summarise business plans. But you can also use it to share key elements of your market research story.

It starts with a focus on the customer and what you want to do with them (the external analysis). Clearly, a good place to cover the research highlights.

Template for Business Model Canvas - sections are Key Partners, Key Activities, Key Resources, Value Propositions, Customer Relationships, Channels, Customer Segments, Cost structure, Revenue Streams

Then, it covers the internal resources required to meet customer needs. Some of these might be obvious from the research. Or you run brainstorming and idea generation sessions to come up with ideas. 

It then pulls these into your central value proposition and key business metrics. This is the headline of your story. It’ll be close to what your elevator pitch was. 

The presentation rule of 3

Finally, it’s also worth building into your edited story the presentation rule of 3.

You’ll have noticed we like the number 3. It’s in our name, of course. But you’ll also see it a lot in how we structure content.

We like to chunk information into groups of 3 as we know that makes it easier to understand. (See our design psychology article for more on the value of chunking by the way). 

The “rule of 3” is often used in writing and presenting to make content easier to remember.

Wooden model of Three Wise Monkeys - Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil

Studies have shown people find it easier to remember things in groups of 3. So when you organise your information into 3s, it’s more likely to “stick” in your audience’s heads. For example, think about how you remember your phone number. Most people don’t remember it as a long string of 10 or 11 numbers. They group the number into 3 chunks.

Try it. Try it on other people. We bet you’ll hear the pause when people stop between the groups of numbers. “Oh four one four (pause) five five five (pause) five five five”.

Once you hear it, you can’t not notice it next time. It’s why 3 is so common in storytelling. Think about it. What did we say earlier? Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. 3 things.

Think about it in jokes. An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman go into a bar. 3 men!

Listen out for it. 3 is everywhere!

Use the rule of 3 when you present

Use the rule of 3 to help make your market research storytelling easier to remember. 

For example, pick out your top 3 insights to back up your main point. Make 3 recommendations based on each insight. Give 3 examples for each point you want to bring to life. 

Your audience probably won’t notice you doing it.

But, they’ll be more likely to remember and act on your story.

Business meeting round with a man presenting in front of a screen to 5 colleagues

The bells and whistles version

The hard part about the elevator pitch and edited version is all the stuff you have to leave out. There’s always such interesting stuff in there. But think about who it’s interesting to.

If some parts of the story are only relevant to certain audiences, share those parts with those audiences directly. Don’t share them with everyone

Share the pricing insight with finance. The packaging insight with supply chain. The website insight with your digital team. But don’t send those insights to people who don’t need them. 

Man's hand holding a camera lens in front of a lake with mountains and blue skies in the background

Instead, set up a place which holds all these insights and which people can access when they need to. This is your bells and whistles version of the story. The “director’s cut and all the DVD extras” version.

That’s where you put the 100+ page research deck the market research company insisted on giving you. You store the original research brief and proposal there. All the data tables, video files and notes you took during meetings. Those are all your bells and whistles. 

You might not need them now. But someone somewhere in the future might be able to find more hidden insight nuggets in there. 

Conclusion - market research storytelling

Market research storytelling can be tough.

Researchers often work under tight deadlines. Market research has to be timely. The longer it takes to deliver the results, the less useful they become.

And it takes time to craft a good market research story. The best one we ever saw was on a multi-market segmentation research project which took 18 months to complete. And it had an amazing story by the end. 

But most market research doesn’t have the luxury of that much time.

Coffee mug with the word begin sitting on a wooden table with blurred chairs in the background

We reckon that’s why so much market research storytelling defaults to standardised formats. Because it’s just easier and faster for them to do.

But not building in some basic storytelling techniques increases the chances the audience won’t get the market research story they need to hear. They end up bored by methodology and chart overload and miss the key points. 

The audience for market research just wants the interesting bits. Elmore Leonard once wrote that “one of the key ways to tell a good story is to leave out the parts which readers tend to skip”. 

It’s a great lesson for market research storytelling. It works for the elevator pitch version and the edited version. You only tell the most interesting part of the story. That’s what’ll give your market research storytelling a happily-ever-after ending.

Check out our story structure and story type articles for more on this. Or get in touch if you want to get more out of market research storytelling. 

Photo Credits

Coffee Cup : Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Woman presenting on stage : Photo by Product School on Unsplash

Person reading with sparkly lights : Photo by Nong V on Unsplash

Woman blowing sprinkles : Photo by Almos Bechtold on Unsplash

Bored in front of computer : Photo by on Unsplash

Woman reading storytelling book : Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Surprised Monkey : Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

Delivery – driver handing over package : Photo by RoseBox رز باکس on Unsplash

Elevator Pitch : Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash

Woman editing on a Macbook : Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone in dark room : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Business meeting : Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Lens : Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

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