Once upon a time, in research
Editor's note: Kelly Hight is manager of custom research and insights at Hilton Worldwide, Memphis, Tenn. Tom Logue is vice president at Message Factors Inc., a Memphis research firm.
Storytelling. Depending your point of view, it might be an innovative new way to communicate important information to research consumers or it might be the latest fad emphasizing style over substance.
The exchange below started as friendly e-mail banter between friends and former coworkers and evolved into a serious debate on the pros and cons of storytelling. Kelly is a client-side researcher for a major hospitality company; Tom is an account executive for a custom research supplier.
It all began with a forwarded article.
Kelly: Tom, thought you’d like to see this article on storytelling in research.
Tom: Thanks. Honestly, I feel like such a curmudgeon but I really dislike the storytelling fad.
K: I disagree about storytelling being a fad. Clients don’t want to be overwhelmed with detail; they just want to know what to DO – and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
T: But doesn’t it worry you when a CMO says, “Stop boring me with the numbers.”?
K: When I was working on the supplier side, the consistent criticism that we received was that we used our reports to show off how smart we are – which meant thousands (literally) of pages of tables and numbers and diagrams but no real direction or recommendations. I think every qualified CMO should say, “Stop boring me with the numbers and give me the message in a form I can use.”
T: A fair point. And anything that promotes the acceptance and usage of legitimate research is fine in my book. When I refer to storytelling as a fad, I’m thinking about the creeping expectation that everything can and should be turned into a pithy anecdote or colorful infographic or edgy video. It’s how Bob Vila must feel watching DIY shows on HGTV these days.
I’m not a purist. But I object to the assumption that all complexity is needless and should be avoided. As I see it, the researcher’s responsibility is to eliminate unnecessary complexity while effectively communicating beneficial complexity.
K: But Tom, that is exactly what good storytelling is: effectively communicating complexity.
T: In theory, yes. I recognize that there’s a time and a place for storytelling in research and there are great tools to support that, including ethnographics and psychographics. My objection is to storytelling becoming the default approach to communicating information because it’s easier to consume. It’s like having a parent who lets you eat cookies rather than the one who makes you eat your spinach. And I don’t mean that to sound patronizing but I am concerned about research being dumbed-down for popularity’s sake.
K: Yeah, the short attention-span syndrome is borderline insulting to the complexity of the work we do but if we can’t keep the focus of our audience, it’s all wasted time anyway.
T: I can’t tell if that’s realism or cynicism but I see your point. So the use of storytelling is a judgment call based on the audience and the content?
K: Right. If you’re presenting to statisticians or hard-number folks, storytelling may be distracting. And you probably don’t need it for pricing or forecasting. On the other hand, when you’re presenting information on attitudes, preferences, motivations, that kind of thing, storytelling can help people relate to the information.
T: Makes sense. And your comment illustrates the point that not every type of information lends itself to storytelling. Which means sometimes the client has to meet the supplier halfway instead of mentally checking out (or checking e-mail on a smartphone) the first time a slide has a table full of numbers instead of graphs or clip art.
K: If a Pareto chart falls in a PPT but the exec is checking his BlackBerry, does it really make a key takeaway?
T: Nice. So is there ever a time in your mind when it’s appropriate to tell a client, “Listen, I know this stinks, but you’re just going to have to pay attention for a couple minutes while I explain something complicated.”?
K: Yes – and I’ve had vendors say that to me when I was trying to brush something aside prematurely. It gets back to knowing your audience. Curiously, I have found that sometimes execs have more of a stomach for tedious detail when the information is presented by their own team members than when it’s presented by the vendor.
T: Why do you think that is?
K: I think there’s a stronger presumption that since we know the business, if we choose to include it, it must be relevant.
T: Which means maybe it’s not entirely up to us as suppliers to figure all this out. I know there are times I could use some help discerning what level of material is appropriate for the audience, what’s relevant, what points to drive home – especially if the audience is one I haven’t met before. As a client, do you ever try to prepare your suppliers by giving them a sense of what the audience is looking for?
K: Prepare your suppliers? Are you kidding? Don’t they already know this stuff? In all seriousness, I don’t know how to answer that. To some degree, I expect that the vendors come into the relationship knowing the fundamentals of good reporting – that gets them halfway there. The remainder is an iterative, collaborative cycle where they give us a draft and we hone it together. I warn them during the RFP phase that we are a highly involved client so that they can plan accordingly – not that they do.
T: What a great segue to pricing. Frankly, from the supplier’s perspective, it’s hard to take those kinds of warnings seriously without knowing what the client is willing to pay a premium for. Vague expectations are hard to budget for, especially in a competitive environment. Creative deliverables like storytelling add to the vagueness.
K: I understand the challenge. Another dilemma for vendors responding to an RFP is that building in extra hours for more involved reporting may push them out of contention with vendors who don’t exercise that caution and come in with a significantly lower bid.
T: Right. I’ve been underbid quite a few times and occasionally I get the phone call down the road saying, “Gee, I wish we’d gone with you instead, the low bidder really isn’t living up to expectations.” It’s a nice feeling but if it’s my only shot at that client for a year, that’s not much consolation. So I’ll just come right out and ask: How much of a premium are you willing to pay for a good story? And by that I don’t mean the analytics behind it, I mean the “show,” the graphics, the presentation. Is it a value-add that you’ll pay more for? Or is it something you expect and don’t think should come at extra cost?
K: Here’s the bad news: It’s something that I expect. Suggesting that it comes with a premium price tag is like saying, “We can do this research for $100,000. If you want the research done WELL, it will cost $120,000.”
T: You make an interesting point. The implication is that even a well-designed survey, flawless data collection and perfect analytics don’t qualify as “research done well” unless the findings are delivered in the ideal format – whether that’s storytelling or not.
K: What’s the alternative? The vendor collects the data and leaves the analysis and reporting to the client? We certainly have those kinds of projects too but if we’re paying for analysis and reporting, I expect it to be pretty close to complete (allowing for some collaboration). My preferred vendors are the ones who minimize my burden.
T: I can relate – I feel the same way about my own suppliers. Of course, this is where clients can help make their own lives easier, by better articulating their expectations and needs when they talk to suppliers. I recognize that’s not always easy. Hopefully that’s where storytelling is headed. Once the novelty wears off and it becomes another standard delivery mechanism, it will be easier for clients to guide their suppliers as to when and how to employ storytelling rather than other presentation styles.
K: Another thing to keep in mind: I’m not saying that we, the clients, are the ultimate authorities on good storytelling. After all, I’m a research geek, too – every finding is fascinating. So I expect vendors to push back if we head in the wrong direction. I’ve worked with vendors who do everything we ask them to and I’ve worked with vendors who resist and explain alternatives when we ask them to do something they don’t agree with. The vendors who resist are the ones I keep going back to, as long as the reasoning is well-founded.
T: I hear what you’re saying. And it’s funny that a conversation that started about storytelling ends up being about client relationships. You want suppliers who can effectively use a variety of tools – including storytelling – to deliver good research. I want clients who are willing to engage in an honest discussion about their research needs so I know when storytelling makes sense.
But I still can’t shake the feeling that we’re headed down a slippery slope, that the element of entertainment in storytelling will become a broader client expectation and that substance will inevitably lose out to style. Do you think that’s a legitimate concern or am I just sitting on my porch swing shaking my cane at the kids on my lawn?
K: It’s the “kids on the lawn” thing. First and foremost, research has to benefit the bottom line. But even the most robust findings in the industry can’t do that if no one is paying attention. I do think that engaging storytelling will become a client expectation, if it isn’t already, but never at the expense of substance. If, in the brief time you get in front of your clients, all you present is the research equivalent of cat videos, you won’t get any more time in front of those clients.
T: I hope you’re right. Because there is a flip side. It’s one I’ve seen with trends ranging from neuromarketing to NPS. It happens when a perfectly good methodology turns into a cure-all and gets implemented well outside its intended application. So I agree with you that self-policing is critical and clients are the best enforcers. If this trend challenges suppliers to provide better deliverables and furthers the cause of research, I’m on board. Just don’t ask me to make cat videos. Deal?
K: Deal. Unless the cats can explain choice modeling.