Break through the clutter

Editor's note: Chelsea Gibbons is research strategist with 20|20 Research, Denver. 

In my job as a research strategist, I regularly work on large-scale qualitative projects that result in hundreds of pages of data. It is my job to take these pages of verbatims and turn them into a document that a human (who isn’t being held at gunpoint) would actually like to read. Because of all this output, it is easy for qualitative reports to become little more than long-winded compilations of verbatim text. To rise above this, a qualitative report must capture the voice of the consumer and also present the reader with something that is distilled and actionable. You must think intentionally about what information is shared and how it’s presented.

To successfully deliver qualitative insights, put your point across effectively and avoid the inclination to deliver transcripts in presentation form. Your reader’s attention span is divided among an increasing number of items and it is more important than ever to deliver qualitative data concisely. Have you ever been asked a question about the results that you felt was clearly answered in your report? Chances are the data was not presented succinctly enough or (worse yet) your reader didn’t even get to that section of the report because of fatigue. Let’s face it: because of the mobile revolution, attention spans are getting shorter. Not to mention, our stakeholders have a lot on their plates and are constantly multitasking. As researchers it is our job to extract the necessary information and communicate it succinctly. 

That is why it’s critical to think about your report as a tool to break through the clutter and capture your reader’s attention. Compelling visuals and clearly defined outcomes can help audiences engage with qualitative data and foster a more in-depth understanding of the subject. After all, if the reader can’t recall the main points of your report, how will they ever take action because of it? 

Executive summary: inform and capture attention 

Have you ever seen a movie preview and instantly judged the movie as boring based off this short excerpt? The same thing happens when stakeholders read our reports. They can instantly tell if you hit the mark. To that end, never bury the lede; key takeaways and implications should be up front. Tell your readers what they need to know in a unique, engaging voice. Readers don’t want to be bored; they want clear, fresh perspectives that can help them grow their business. They also don’t want to have to look at 40 slides before they land on the insights that address the business need.

By succinctly presenting your main idea up front, you will instantly instill confidence that you have a grasp of the business problem. You are telling your stakeholders that you have something interesting and insightful to say and have a point of view. 

A guideline for limiting what goes into your executive summary is the rule of three. The rule of three is a practice that grew out of storytelling. Ever heard of the Three Little Pigs, the Three Blind Mice, Goldilocks and the Three Bears or the Three Musketeers? These follow the rule of three, highlighting three events or three characters to make the story more engaging. At the crux, the rule of three is about how our brains function and what we can recall.

For research, we can translate the idea into our reporting by simply thinking in threes in order to elevate, simplify and increase the reader’s comprehension. As a guideline, try to not include more than three big takeaways in your executive summary. Remember, if stakeholders can’t recall your points, they are never going to act on them. In Figure 1, Key Takeaways, you can see how the insights were culled down to three succinct points and how color-blocking was used to give emphasis.

Visuals: functional and aesthetically pleasing 

For many readers it’s easier to extract information from something visual like an infographic, image or graph than it is from reading paragraphs of text. They can quickly look at an image or graphic and ascertain the main takeaway. In qualitative research especially (which tends to be very text-heavy), it is exceptionally important that we present data in a way that is easy to digest. Using visual insights as your starting point will help your reader comprehend your reports in a new, impactful way. Like most forms of design, visual insights rely on two components – function and aesthetics. In qualitative research, function is the priority, as our primary goal is to ensure that the information is accurate and easily digestible. The aesthetic component helps your reader stay engaged throughout the report. 

Function: Is this visual telling the right story?

  • Positioning: Think about how you can display your data in a way the reader can quickly digest and that lends itself naturally to the story you are trying to tell. Overlapping pieces suggest overlapping data and should be used to show relationships within the data set. Sequenced shapes can show progression and can more easily allow the reader to follow along. The timeline graphic in Figure 2 displays the progression of the automobile industry along the top half and the milestones for Gen Z and Millennials on the bottom. This graphic lets the reader quickly see the relationship between the target audience and the timeline milestones.

  • Graphics: Graphics can quickly show relationships that paragraphs of text simply cannot. The “future of transportation” graphic in Figure 3 shows how the different themes relate and quickly lets the reader grasp the main points.
  • Shape: Every shape is perceived differently – circles (soft, rounded edges) have a different tone/message than squares (rigid, defined). Gears suggest interplaying pieces that work toward a greater function. Arrows show movement and direction. Think about what message you are trying to send with your data and which shape(s) would be the most appropriate. Only use as many shapes as needed or the impact is lost. 
  • Images and videos: Qualitative research allows us to capture more than just text. We can also capture images and videos from the respondents. When using images and videos you still need to cull through the data and select what will be the most impactful for your story. If you have hundreds of images, select the best few and make a collage. Or simply select the best photo and highlight it on a slide of its own. Videos should be clipped and succinct and only showcase the main points. 

Aesthetics: Does this catch my attention and is it visually pleasing?

  • White/negative space: Always strive to balance content and space. Too little space can feel constricting and busy and force the reader to work hard to determine the main point of the slide. Think about space as it relates to text boxes, images and other large items on the page. Be cognizant of your spacing, giving margins, text and photos a chance to breathe and radiate on their own. If you are successful in using spacing correctly (vs. overcrowding each slide with text), your story will be better absorbed. 
  • Color: Be careful about what colors you use and how many colors are used together. When too many colors are used, the reader’s eye will be pulled in many different directions making it difficult to focus. Think of the blocks of color as tools to add emphasis to text. This aesthetic separation gives our eyes a break from traditional bullets and overcrowded slides, letting readers take in the content without anything screaming at them. Using color correctly gives your report a sense of polish and sophistication. 
  • Images: Whether from stock or other sources, high-quality, professional images are a great way to elevate your report. Pairing an image with an insight (Figure 4) captures your audience and makes your point resonate. On the flipside, low-quality or plainly stock photos can diminish the quality of your report. Much like images captured in your research, you should focus on not overcrowding the slide and being strategic with your image selection.

Make the information stick

The starting point for your report should always be “What I am trying to say?” This sounds simple but if you don’t know what your intention is, how is your reader going to take action as a result? Distilling your data into meaningful insights is the first step. After this, you need to make sure that your reader understands the insights, will remember the information you are trying to tell them and will implement action because of it. Working together, the story and the visuals can make the information stick and allow your reader to take confident action.