Can I tell you a story?

We all know that stories are powerful, probably the most widely used and effective communication tool in human history. They have helped whole societies to develop a narrative around how they came to exist and what they are striving to achieve. 

Big businesses have also used stories for years, narratives about their formation and evolution, the role they play in satisfying consumer demand, or what role they think they play in wider society. Most of the adverts we see contain some form of storytelling, and there are stories in every sales pitch and new business proposal. 

In recent years, organisations have woken up to the power of stories for internal communication, with CEOs investing a lot of time developing their own narratives, and a lot of budget communicating their vision. 

So it is only natural that Insight teams have followed the same trend, and every research conference now includes at least one session on storytelling. 

To meet this corporate demand, training companies have started to advertise storytelling workshops. Some are very engaging, but most are far too conceptual for analysts and researchers to find useful. We often hear Insight leaders say that their Learning and Development department arranged some storytelling training, but unfortunately it’s now difficult to see how team behaviour has changed much as a result. 

So, which key principles can we take from the concept of storytelling, and how can we apply them back to our Insight work? 

The IMA think the best approach is to consider the way in which various professionals approach communication, reflect on the principles they represent, and then look for the application to Insight. 

For example, let’s consider authors, and some things about their stories which we perhaps take for granted:

1. All successful authors have a great appreciation of their readers. They know what they like, what they don’t like, and how they want a story to be told. How often do we develop pieces of Insight communication without considering the specific needs of our audience on that occasion?

2. Great books also have a very clear theme running through their story. They may delve into the lives of many characters, touch on many periods of history, or cover multiple topics, but there is a unifying theme underpinning the story. Successful Insight teams nail the business issue that they are to address, and explicitly link each point back to that key issue.

3. Successful authors also appreciate the need to hook their audience from the start. Nobody reads the second chapter if the first one did nothing to grab our attention. The most successful Insight teams spend a disproportionate amount of time on the first page of their reports, the first slide, the opening sentence in their presentations.


4. The fourth tip is connected to a point made by Alistair Herbert from Linguabrand at the last CX & Insight Leaders event: human beings don’t like having to think too hard. Great authors recognise this by creating a natural flow to their stories, each page building on the last, the final paragraph in each chapter drawing us into reading the next one. Flow is equally important for Insight communication: remove any obstacles that make it difficult to follow your story.


5. Finally, don’t put pen to paper until you have worked out where your story is going to take you: storyboard before you write, and it will help you to put each of the other four principles into practice.


Last year we were lucky enough to hear author Robert Harris speak at the Warwick Words book festival, and he described how he had begun his first book, Fatherland, without a clear idea of where his story was going to go. He was pleased with the first few pages, but arrived at the 35th page to find that he had all his leading characters gathered in the same room, and suddenly realised that he didn’t know why they were there or what was going to happen next.


At that point, he put his first draft to one side, and sketched out ideas for the book from beginning to end, and only when he was happy with the conclusion did he begin the process of revealing the story that he now knew.


There is much that Insight analysts and market researchers can learn from here. We have a tendency to write up our findings as we go, and it would be far better to write our communications backwards once we knew the conclusion we wanted our readers to reach.


If you have another 5 minutes... 

'Storytelling for Insight teams' is available as a 1-day training workshop to individuals from any organisation, with open courses taking place on Tuesday 7th July (London) and Tuesday 1st December (Birmingham). We also offer team training sessions if you would like several members of your team to benefit - click here to see find out more about our IMA training options.

'Storytelling for Insight teams' is also available as an Insight leader guide on the IMA website. If your company is a member and you have an online account, you can read it now (remember to log in to see member content). If you are not a member and would like to find out more about our guides, then please contact us.

And finally, the IMA's next Insight Forums are taking place on Wednesday 11th March (London) and Thursday 2nd April (Manchester). We will be discussing the best way to create joined-up insights. Please get in touch if you are interested and would like your company to take part.