A real page-turner

Editor's note: Nancy Cox is the founder of Research Story Consulting.  She can be reached at nancy@researchstoryconsulting.com.

Brain researchers made the research industry care about story. Before the functional MRI demonstrated how brains light up in response to story, storytelling was, using parlance of the game show “The $100,000 Pyramid,” in the category of “Interesting Skills My Job Does Not Require.” Researchers have been quick to reframe storytelling into the category “Necessary Skills to Communicate Insights.” Given this acceptance of – and even demand for – story, what’s been the challenge in moving from accepting storytelling to applying it? Paradoxically, it’s been myths about storytelling. Let’s replace those two of those story myths with story skills!

Myth #1: Storytelling = Fitting data into a plot template

Busted: A plot template doesn’t fit all data 

If you’ve ever given up in frustration trying to wrangle data into a storytelling template, you’ve run up against using the demands of plot. It’s not you. It’s not your data. It’s the plot template. That template demands an escalating causal event sequence. Plot is the answer to, “What happens in this movie or novel?” Think about answering that question for Harry Potter. It would be frustrating to listen to an answer that starts with book seven then goes to book three, then oops, perhaps we need to start with book one. Ah, the first challenge with plot: The plot answer requires answering in event sequence.

This is deeper than chronological sequence. First, data must be ordered with causality from one data point to another. Correlation is not strong enough for plot. Second, each event must build in intensity. That intensity build might be true for some consumer experiences (every episode of the TV show “Say Yes to the Dress” is edited to demonstrate this) but not for others. Perhaps the most intense data point occurs early in the sequence, such as deciphering health insurance options during enrollment – the next steps to enrollment may de-escalate in intensity. No plot template has the climax as the first event. Third, no data point can be a side note to this causal sequence. Back to the Harry Potter example, answering “what happens” with a character analysis of Professor Snape derails the audience even if that’s your most insightful commentary. Similarly, forcing data into a plot template may prevent you from communicating a key point.

Certainly, explore a plot as an option. Your findings on the time-pressed wedding dress shopper may plot neatly with other race-against-the-clock stories such as the movie “Speed.” Use the pursuit story plot. Perhaps even refer to “Speed” for comparison. Put effort into understanding plot models with a reference book such as “20 Master Plots” by Ronald B. Tobias. A book like this will help avoid oversimplifying plot into the one, two or six plots. The usefulness of one universal plot formula is like only using the AutoSum formula in Excel. There are notable distinctions between plots – for example the difference between the underdog/Cinderella plot (disadvantaged competitor) and the rivalry plot (competitors evenly matched). Telling an underdog market-share data story is different than a rivalry market-share data story.

For those recalling the hero’s journey plot as a monomyth – THE universal myth – also recall that the hero’s journey has 17 distinct characteristics as identified by Joseph Campbell. The hero’s journey is extremely popular (like Excel’s AutoSum), enduring and appealing across cultures – well worth knowing as a plot and there are compelling research reports that have used the hero’s journey. But 17 distinct characteristics make it, well, distinct from other plots. Not to mention that its by-nature epic sweep requires lengthy narration: almost 600,000 words for the Lord of the Rings books, over 1 million for the Harry Potter books.

How do you know if it’s worth exploring plot as a data storytelling option? When there is value to answering every question that was asked and probed, every data analysis and crosstab, plot is not the best approach. Including all the data violates the basic plot rule of Chekhov’s gun: "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep," wrote Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, advising another writer. In other words, plot templates don’t allow for sidebars, slides that address outlying data points or new, unanswered questions that the research turns up. A useful metaphor is to imagine data points as dominos. Do they line up in a sequence, each one in its proper place tipping into the next one, building up to a major conclusion such as the last domino climaxing in a dramatic balloon release? With no extraneous dominos left standing (or slides you simply cannot edit out)? If you have “dominoed” your data, then plot is a good storytelling device for your story. If not, good news! There are other storytelling elements that light up an audience’s brains.

Myth #2: If I can’t use plot, I don’t have a story

Busted: Use story elements – dialog, character and setting

If plot explains what happens in a story, elements like dialog, character and even setting can answer the more research report-relevant question: “What’s this story about?” In fact, quotes (dialog), respondents/participants (characters) and secondary/contextual data (setting) are already part of research reporting. You may need just a few story skills to ramp up the story power.

Dialog story skills for quotes

A person walking though a door in a field.A common way to add story or interesting detail to a report is through quotes or verbatims. The need for that “color commentary” even drives methodology decisions – the desire to hear the voice behind the numbers. Maximize your investment of time and money to gather these quotes by using quotes like writers use dialog.

First dialog story skill: avoid expository dialog. Expository data is that awkward dialog when characters are filling in backstory. This dialog never rings true to how people really talk. For example, Judy sighs to her brother Joe, “Our family store hasn’t been the same since our dad died two weeks ago.” That feels more like a soap opera than real life. It’s useful background info for the audience but these siblings already know the impact of their father’s death on the family store. A writer would use narrative rather than dialog to communicate the father’s death and its impact: Two weeks ago, Judy and Joe had promised mourners at their father’s funeral that the store would not change. The reader’s brain is now primed with the necessary facts, primed for more emotionally revealing dialog: “I didn’t know I could lie so easily. And I plan to keep lying,” said Judy.

In research storytelling we have a similar opportunity to strengthen our quotes by separating the expository from the respondent’s own words and feelings. For example, say the research yielded this quote: “I totally agree that baby wipes are very high-priced. I’m now making my own baby wipes – I shared that on TikTok.” The price-related finding expressed in the first statement is one we’ve likely already put forth in a narrative data point: “80% top two-box agreement that baby wipes are high or very high priced.” Editing the quote to, “I’m now making my own baby wipes – I shared that on TikTok” does what we want it to do: bring to light the real-life impact of the pricing.

Exposition often sneaks into quotes as respondents answer questions by repeating the research question. For example, a researcher says, “Describe the perfect room-painting experience.” The consumer responds, “My perfect room-painting experience would be that my partner agrees, with no arguments about my color preference, the paint covers in one coat and the paint on the wall matches the color chip.” Since this quote is in the report section on perfect experiences, edit to focus on the answer: “My partner agrees, with no arguments about my color preference, the paint covers in one coat and the paint on the wall matches the color chip.” 

Second dialog story skill: writers give the most lines to the most important characters and on the most important themes. Number of quotes + length of quotes = audience time. Is the priority consumer segment quoted most? The critical topic? Or did a subtopic stage an attention coup with the most quotes? Try this book editor technique: highlight different characters’ quotes with different-colored highlighters. Squinting at the manuscript, it’s easy to see who dominates. Sometimes, a supposedly minor character has taken over! Non-fiction editors do the same with expert quotes but highlight by topic. Easy to do the same with quotes in a report – highlight by priorities. 

Longer quotes often get the star treatment visually as well, landing in slide hotspots of the Z-pattern reading flow – especially spotlighted in the four corners. Again, do these quotes deserve the spotlight? A quick test: Do they work like an elevator speech? In other words, would you want this respondent to speak this quote to a key decision maker in an elevator?

Third dialog story skill: put care into how you handle the best lines and best quotes. Here’s a storytelling secret: writers give the best lines to the characters they want you to like the most. Think about your favorite characters in fiction, in movies, in video games or even in commercials. Writers are appealing to readers’ universal desire to be that person with the best lines, the one who utters the perfect turn of phrase at the perfect moment vs. thinking of it hours later. It’s even tempting when it’s the villain: “Luke, I am your father.”

Who has the best lines or quotes in your report? Are they from the consumers or the point of view you want the audience to like best? A great line goes a long way toward influencing decision makers. When facing the challenge of having several great quotes, using this “best quote, like best” filter can help choose which quote to feature.  

Again, consider the visual emphasis of this best quote. The great line is not delivered off-camera. The character delivers in closeup. Who do you see when you read these lines?

“Go ahead. Make my day.”

“Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper now about to become the Masters champion.”

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Do a closeup on the great quote with font size, color, perhaps including a photo, with lots of white space around the quote or video clip. Another writing tip: use best lines EARLY – no need to save them for a punchy ending or a climax. 

One last test for the great line: Can it become shorthand for the report? Quotes like, “Houston, we have a problem,” “If you build it, he will come,” and “Show me the money” sum up “What’s this story about?” If you have that quote, maximize it! Use it in e-mails like a movie trailer for the report. Display it large on the screen as attendees shuffle into the meeting. If you have a memorable quote but you don’t want it to be shorthand for the report, think hard about including it. Sometimes a respondent delivers a highly memorable, entertaining quote but it doesn’t serve the needs of the report. Don’t include it. Good writers know that sometimes that they have to “kill their darlings.”

Archetype resonance – a character story skill

Archetypes are a very powerful characterization tool. So powerful that they create understanding without plot. The misunderstood hero. The fish out of water. The wise child. Archetypes are more resonant, timeless and universal than personas or segments. Segments or personas exist only in their context as they are constructed from specific, situational behavioral and attitudinal data (plus possible biases). Archetypes also differ from stereotypes or cliches because they are rounded with both light and shadow. Stereotypes or cliches are flattened by biases into one-dimensionality.

You may already be using archetypes indirectly. When respondents answer questions such as, “If Brand X were a famous person, who would that be?” they may reveal archetypes. There’s an archetype in a respondent’s answer of, “I see this brand like Johnny Cash, as a rebel.” Go deeper into the rebel archetype. What’s the secondary pop-culture analysis of Johnny Cash as the rebel? (Perhaps this is a generational view.) You can still use the quote about Johnny Cash but highlight the rebel archetype to take your audience beyond the celebrity aspect. Also, Johnny Cash had a long career, which may represent various archetypes to your audience depending on their generation, their feelings about country music or the band Nine Inch Nails. By going deeper to the archetype, you hit upon the universal (rebel) underlying the specific and take your report discussion to a deeper level beyond musical preferences.

In data analysis, archetypes can pop up when respondents use simile or metaphor. Look for phrases like “I feel like…” in your data. A respondent may not say the word “queen” but she may say, “When I enter at Thanksgiving with my sweet potato pie, everyone stops talking and makes a path for me.” Or UX research may reveal a new user who not only quickly sees the value of your service but also has advice that would benefit more-experienced users. Sounding “wise beyond their years” is a hallmark of the wise child archetype. The paradox of the wise child is that while this new user has the potential to be influential by enthusiastically sharing his insightful advice, he could be dismissed by more-experienced users as being a newbie. How would you help the wise child resolve this tension to become an effective brand advocate?

MasterClass offers a brisk overview of 12 common archetypes connected to Jungian archetypes. For more nuance consider adding a more robust archetype overview to your researcher toolkit such as the Caroline Myss 80 archetype card deck. Card decks like these can also be used in research methodology – having respondents choose archetypes that represent brands, products/services or themselves. Having the larger set allows for actionable nuances. Explore lists of stock characters as well – “fish out of water” may not appear in standard archetype lists but this character has archetypical resonance.

Two considerations with archetypes. One: Every archetype has both light/shadow. This is a key distinction between archetypes and stereotypes (stereotypes are negative) and cliches (oversimplified to be good or bad). For example, when researching what archetype applies to the smart phone, the vampire kept coming up. Yes, the smart-phone-as-vampire has a definite shadow side – it sucks attention and time, it drains energy. But you also have to acknowledge it as seductive, something with which you have an enjoyable relationship – making it more like the sexy vampire Edward from “Twilight” than the ghoulish Nosferatu (who deserved the stake in his heart).

Consideration two: While universal, examples can be highly individual. Back to the idea of Johnny Cash as rebel. With respondents, it can be helpful to ask for other rebel examples or for instances when the respondent felt like a rebel before pressing for the connection between rebel and the research topic. These further examples will help your audience see the universal aspects of the archetype vs. fixating on one example that might not resonate or could provoke an argument over whether Johnny Cash really was a rebel. (Or confuse the person who’s never heard of Johnny Cash.)

Setting: Because research “takes place”

The story element of setting, of establishing time and place, opens most research reports, beginning with objectives (“Once upon a time, we were sent to find…”) and methodology (focus groups, nationwide online polling, etc.). There is debate about the value of putting this grounding information up front, with suggestions that perhaps it is better left to the appendix – get right to the recommendations or executive summary, the thinking goes. Some even suggest the researcher is burying the lede by not stating critical insights right away. 

There is an emerging reason for stating this setting information at the outset. In today’s world of rapid staff turnover, establishing the setting of the research (time, place, methodology) may be even more critical. The team that started the project likely has new members who don’t have the institutional knowledge of the objectives or haven’t read the methodology e-mails, etc. Without setting the stage, it’s like entering a movie after the first 10 minutes or skipping the opening chapter of a mystery novel. In addition, even if the original team has remained intact during the project, the team is fluid on both the supplier and the client side. The research report is the keeper of institutional memory – not the people.

How do you resolve the debate between wanting those opening slides to establish critical grounding but also draw your audience into the research? Take a bold step by having a respondent (i.e., character) set the stage. Ask a respondent to introduce him or herself by describing the location, the time of day, who is with them and why what they have to say is important. You may find you have to ask the importance question twice – at the beginning and at the end when the respondent has reflected more on the topic. This classic storytelling technique opens stories such as “Field of Dreams” (both the book and the movie), “Catcher in the Rye” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” Don’t skip the part about their location, time of day and who is with them – those details help to make that critical shift from being together in a meeting to being together with your respondents. To add a further consumer-centric touch, have a respondent thank the attendees at the end, perhaps reinforcing a key point.

Go write

Story elements are already in your reporting. A few story skills polish them to shine. Writing, however, is the only way to apply those skills. Go write. Light up some brains.