Storytelling, a Better Choice Than “Nerdy & Wordy”

Storytelling, a Better Choice Than “Nerdy & Wordy”

Storytelling is powerful.  Research indicates that up to 70% of what we learn is consumed through storytelling.  As children, we sat on our parents laps and listened to them read stories to us.  Whether it was The Cat in the Hat or Scuffy the Tugboat, stories were among the first ways we began to learn and understand the wider world.

As adults, we still communicate in parables, anecdotes, and analogies.  The ability to weave a good story is an essential skill for market researchers.  So much of the research we do, whether it is in-home ethnography, focus groups, or behavioral research is shared to our clients as stories.  In fact, a big part of our job is to bring our respondents’ stories to life.

This challenge is even greater when you are telling a story with data.  Storytelling is a much-preferred way to communicate to your audience than “death by PowerPoint.”  There is a tactical use for overwhelming an audience with data, but it is rare.  In my experience, the most effective Market Researchers aren’t just good researchers, they are good storytellers too.

“Nerdy and Wordy,” the Wrong Kind of Storytelling:

An alert went-off on my Outlook calendar.  Just fifteen minutes until the supplier arrived.  I turned back to my spreadsheet.  I much preferred thinking about it than thinking about my next meeting.  As I was chunking-away at my next formula, one of my colleagues appeared at my desk.

“Hey,” she said.  “Do I need to attend this research roll-out?”  I winced.  Yes.  She did.  But I didn’t blame her for looking for a way out.

“I’d prefer if you did.  The research was on your business, and you are kinda the main audience for their recommendations.”

“OK.  Well, would it be rude of me if I sat in the back and did some other work?  I’ve got a pretty tight deadline, and I know you can probably figure out the important parts and recap them to me.”

Nice attempt at flattery.  I promised myself it wouldn’t work this time. I didn’t want to get stuck with homework, and frankly, I was hoping to do the same thing during the meeting.  Is that bad of me?  Not for this meeting  I decided.

“I wouldn’t have to recap the key insights and recommendations for you if you sat in the front and paid attention,” I said with my corniest salesman smile.  I hoped that by joking she’d give in.  She stood firm.

“Look.  I just don’t understand what they’re saying.  Those presentations are so nerdy and so wordy.  I don’t get what half the stuff means, and the slides are all text.  They just get up there and read.  It’s terrible.  I’m so glad you’re our Shopper Insights Manager.  You make things so much easier to understand.”

Again, nice attempt at flattery.  I knew her third push-back wouldn’t be so complimentary.  At this point, I had two options.  I could keep translating my suppliers’ presentations into plain English for my team, or I could dump my supplier.

Twenty minutes later, after the usual business introductions, I made-up my mind.  I wasn’t going to sit through another “nerdy and wordy” presentation again.  There are plenty of suppliers who can do this research.  I shouldn’t have to re-write every one of their decks so that they make sense.

Now, ask yourself, are you that supplier?  Am I one of your clients?

Don’t Lead With Your Nose, Lead With Storytelling:

. . . I laughed nervously and continued.  “My boxing coach always told me, “Don’t lead with your nose.”  I couldn’t help it though.  I grew up wrestling and the wrestling-stance was ingrained in my muscle memory.  No matter how many times he yelled at me, I’d always drop my hands and go back to a wrestling stance.  Eventually, coach decided to duct tape one of my hands to my head.  After a few weeks of that, I finally broke the habit.”

Paul laughed.  It may have been just a polite laugh.  Either way, I was relieved.  After all, he was a storytelling expert.  He was even a published author.  I had read his book, Lead With a Story, and I was hoping to impress him.

“Can I give you a piece of advice?”  Paul offered when he finished laughing.

“Sure,” I said.  That was exactly why I had called him.  I wanted to improve my skills as a presenter and knew my style was a little too “academicky” for someone on a sales team.  His book gave me confidence to try something new, but after a few rocky attempts, I was getting frustrated.  Any advice he had would help.

“Don’t lead with your nose.  Or, in this case, don’t begin by saying “So let me tell you a story.”  When your audience hears that, it lowers their expectations.  They know if you have to tell them a story is coming, it means you aren’t confident in your storytelling ability.  Just jump right in.  Don’t lead with your nose.”

“Easy as that?  I asked.

“Yep.  In fact, if you can turn your whole presentation into a story, or series of stories, they’ll keep listening the whole time and not even realize you are talking about market research.”

Now, ask yourself, in your presentations, are you leading with your nose?  Or are you leading with a story?

How to Avoid Being “Nerdy and Wordy” Through Storytelling:

In the first anecdote, the supplier lost my business because their presentation style was so off-putting.  In my second story, I was given permission to be a Market Researcher who tells stories.

After talking with Paul I realized I could have fun with presenting.  Today, in all my presentations, I turn the research into a single narrative.  There are many structures for storytelling and creating a narrative.  Paul’s book provides many good overviews of them and includes several examples you could reapply in your own work.

When I first create the story, I write it as a paragraph.  Then, I take all the sentences from that one paragraph story and make them the headlines of the PowerPoint.  I admit I am not a perfect storyteller, just an enthusiast.  However, a series of slides that tells a story sure beats slide titles like “Market Data,” “Q1 Sales Growth,” and “Recommendations.”

I spend the most time on outlining my presentation. If I’m talking about qualitative research, I literally tell the shopper’s story.  By story, I mean “Beginning, middle, end” with rising action, a denouement, and a conclusion.  The consumer is the protagonist, the business situation is the antagonist, and resolution comes from my recommendations.  If it is a story about quantitative data, I spend most of my time ordering the data in the way that makes the most sense and provides the clearest narrative.  It’s fun and effective.  Who  can ask for more?


Just to be clear, I haven’t walked away from the BLUF style of communication.  When writing research reports and recommendations, the recommendations are still king.  If you look at the story above, the recommendations are the hero.  When presenting market research data orally, I always try to make it a quick, pithy story.  When I write market research reports, I do it in the BLUF style.

I hope that after reading this, you feel you have the freedom to bring storytelling into your presentation style.  Even if you are a little “nerdy and wordy” it’s OK.  Storytelling is something you learn.  I’ve been practicing it for only a few years, and can certainly get better.  If my examples above aren’t a helpful start, or you want to learn more, I highly recommend you check-out Paul Smith’s Lead With a Story.

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