Research and Acting – The Tip of the Iceberg

Matt Powell this week draws some interesting conclusions between his parallel lives as both a market researcher and an actor.

As some of you may or may not know, as well as my career as a market researcher I am also a keen actor, and have been ‘treading the boards’ for some years now. Over the years that I have been immersed in the industry of research and marketing, I have noticed that much of what we deal with as researchers in our day-to-day job is particularly relevant to the job of an actor – from research techniques that come in useful when researching a role, to certain useful business and marketing models. For this Thursday Night Insight I have decided to look at a couple of the similarities between the job of an actor and the job of a researcher.

Due to our business-to-business focus at B2B International, many of the research projects that we conduct incorporate a number of research methodologies that complement each other in order to answer the overall research objective(s). Indeed, many of our questionnaires and discussion guides are much longer than the typical consumer research project. Many projects can include a phase of desk research, followed by in-depth interviews, followed by an e-survey or a quantitative telephone survey. The data from these individual phases are then analysed and a report developed that is presented to our client upon completion of the project. That, of course, is a very brief summation of the job, but I mention it in order to highlight the point that for most research projects, we have a huge amount of varying types of data that need to be analysed and distilled into the few slides where our recommendations are made.

As researchers, when presenting the findings from a project, we may sometimes feel the need to display the results for every question, as much of the desk research as possible, and as many quotes as we are able – sometimes we feel we need to show that we have indeed gathered the data that we said we would. Of course, we always try to steer clear of this – the presentation, in the end, is our means of communicating to the client our answer to the research objective, and therefore the more concise it is the better.

Whilst working as an actor, I have noticed how similar the processes of a research project and bringing a role from script to stage can be. By the time an actor takes to the stage, or steps in front of the cameras to perform a role, he or she will have done huge amounts of work in order to bring the role to life. Hours, days and weeks will have been spent on absorbing the text, researching particular areas of interest, and rehearsing before the actor even steps onto the stage. As well as learning the lines for a part, an actor will also conduct large amounts of research on elements such as: historical period in which the play/film is set, specialist trades of a character, accents, cultural trends, technologies used, and many more. This research enables the actor to deliver a role that is grounded in truth, and ultimately believable to the audience.

This process struck a chord with me recently as I realised the similarities between how an actor delivers a role onstage following an extensive phase of research and preparation, and how the findings from a research project are delivered to answer a specific objective. In both instances, the final outcome (whether the research presentation, or the actor’s performance that an audience sees) is only the tip of the iceberg. As an audience in a theatre we do not wish to see an actor’s heavily annotated script, their rehearsal process, or the large amounts of research that have been done – we want to watch the performance. Indeed, with market research, the final presentation that we see is simply the tip of a much, much larger iceberg – we know there is a huge amount of data that has been gathered, but we do not wish to see a chart for every question, or a quote slide for every open-ended question; we wish to see the information that is relevant to answering the research objective. As researchers there may be questions that influence our decision and choices for recommendations, but in many cases (as with an actor’s research portfolio) we do not need to see these – the bigger picture is what counts. However, I hasten to add, without the information that is not seen – the main body of the iceberg, if you will – we are unable to fully make our recommendations or draw our conclusions. Likewise, an actor would not be able to deliver a believable, truthful performance without his or her unseen work.

Indeed, the comparison between the job of a market researcher and an actor is also true when we think of the differences in how a research objective may be answered by one researcher compared with another. Of course, all competent researchers will be able to design a project that answers the research objective – though there may be many different ways of achieving this, different methods, and different means of presenting the data. In the same way, we know that if we see Ian McKellan performing Hamlet, the words spoken will be the same as the Hamlet that we would see Kenneth Brannagh perform. However, we also know that the performances will be very different.

There are many more similarities between the jobs of a market researcher and an actor that could be touched upon – however, these two seem to resonate quite clearly to me as good examples. After all, in both jobs we seek to fully understand a particular problem, issue or situation, before analysing what we know and then delivering a well informed interpretation of it. Just rest assured that the tip of the iceberg is usually, and I say ‘usually’, the most interesting part.

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