As we walked towards the car in this drab Birmingham industrial estate, I could scarcely have felt a greater sense of achievement had I scaled Everest or learned to knock up a decent risotto. The year was 1999 and I was a market research beginner. I had just exited my first ever client presentation (or ‘debrief’, as we called it) and I had NAILED it.
I sat smugly in my boss’ Mercedes and awaited the plaudits. I turned on the heated passenger seat – the very least I deserved. I had safely negotiated 30 slides worth of architect-opinion-packed PowerPoint that afternoon, our audience watching speechless, motionless, evidently impressed. From this moment onwards I was officially a big hitter, a Staffordshire city slicker. Time to enjoy my success. Ginsters ploughmans sandwich on expenses on the way home? Don’t mind if I do.
Yet as our offices appeared on the horizon Terry would say something that would obliterate my self-confidence and be seared on my memory forever. “I was bored to crap when you were speaking today Matthew. Don’t let it happen again”. And with that he turned up the radio, making any response inaudible.
I have often reflected on that exciting day and its grim denouement. I probably articulated the views of 100 architects adequately, articulately and enthusiastically. But the horrible truth is that my dreary sermon benefitted no-one possessing the power of sight and the ability to read. I didn’t interpret the slides. I didn’t link them together. I might as well have sat under the table and clicked from one slide to the next, allowing the audience to read the report in their own time. Or posted it to them.
16 years later, the required standards of market research buyers have increased tenfold. We are not there to ‘debrief’. We are there to inform, entertain, persuade, provoke, enlighten and make ourselves remembered. We are artists as well as scientists, orators as well as analysts. Debriefs may work for autopsies but they don’t work for world class market research.
Market research, like marketing, like branding; is all about storytelling. Yes, our starting point is the systematic and objective collection of data, but there is only one thing that is going to make a set of research recommendations listened to, adhered to and returned to, and that is a convincing story well told. With this in mind, we at B2B International believe that every great story – every great market research presentation – is built around 9 key ingredients:
A story is more authentic and, therefore, more memorable when the audience can place themselves within it. Top class market research presenters are expert users of anecdotes and descriptions that characterise the market environment in which a study is located, and the ‘day in the life’ of the consumers or businesses that are the subjects of the study. Understanding the needs of a market – a principal objective of most market research – is far easier for an audience once they have a picture in their minds of the market forces, or the daily activities and challenges facing potential customers.
Most strong stories are built around a ‘star’ or a hero that the audience empathises with and navigates the story alongside. Similarly, great market research presentations are seen through the eyes of one audience from start to finish (the research agency’s client in the case of a market entry study; the client’s customer in the case of a market needs study). The more specific the target audience, the more concise the story and the more focused the recommendations. If only one segment is realistically of interest to the client, a good storyteller would talk about market needs predominantly from the perspective of this specific group. Nobody wants to listen to a segment profile for a group with no money or a competitive profile of a tiny company that plays no role in the market.
Suspense is critical to making any story engaging, and this holds as true in a market research presentation as in a best-selling novel. A great presentation builds towards a conclusion layer by layer, allowing the audience to ‘join the dots’ and work out the main answer as they go. For example, a study may state early on that a target audience is affluent, move on to say that they rarely switch suppliers, continue to say that the client has a strong reputation and then conclude that the client should put its prices up. As the story builds, the storyteller makes repeated nods towards the ultimate conclusion, avoiding the risk of ‘not getting to the point’. Each section intrigues and excites the audience before the conclusion brings the story together.
All great novels contain a struggle – often between good and evil or restraint and temptation. Great market research presentations also have a struggle at their core. They have, after all, been commissioned in order that someone can choose between at least two alternative courses of action: Should we enter this market or should we not? Should we release this product or should we not? Which segment should we target? For the sake of persuasion, a great market research presenter articulates the choices clearly and conveys the pros and cons in an engaging way, focusing on the main salient points rather than the minutiae and ultimately advising on how the struggle can be won.
The sequence in which events are narrated impacts the extent to which suspense is created and how well the story ends up being understood. Many market researchers are poor at creating an engaging sequence of events and tend to reject the importance of this skill. Boring presentations are sequenced chronologically: if the question was asked first, it gets reported first. Skilful storytellers sequence the story thematically, allowing the audience to pick up the story one topic at a time. Each topic advances the story, driving towards the eventual conclusion.
Synonyms and analogies create a link between new, complex topics and more familiar topics. They anchor the story in quotidian experiences, making the story understandable and memorable. They convert the abstract into the tangible. Consider a discussion around ‘hygiene factors’ and ‘differentiators’, a distinction that is not always clear to clients in technical markets. The narrator might draw a comparison with a car: “The hygiene factors are the needs that are equivalent to wanting wheels and brakes on a car – these needs must be met for the car provider to even be considered. The differentiators are the USB port or the heated seats – they aren’t essential, but they drive satisfaction and can determine which car is chosen.” When using synonyms, it is important that the synonymous situation is something that will be universally familiar to the audience.
We live in a world of short attention spans and tight timetables. Presentation meetings that are too long or unnecessarily detailed can bore, enrage, or simply end up unfinished. During report preparation, great presenters ensure that as much time is spent summarising and reducing the report as was spent putting the report together. Remember – when you create the final chart, you are only half way there! At the presentation meeting, good presenters always leave plenty of time to summarise and debate the report.
Surprising a group of hard-nosed businesspeople in a presentation about their business may seem unlikely. However, if we as researchers don’t uncover at least a surprising anecdote within a study we almost certainly haven’t looked hard enough. Every great presentation has an ‘ah-ha’ moment, an epiphany. Clients are sometimes reluctant at the end of a presentation that any such moment existed; it is therefore worth asking what key questions they want answering at the beginning of the meeting in order to identify their knowledge gaps.
Great presentations, like great stories, move quickly overall, but also contain variations in pace. Elements of procedure (how many interviews did we conduct; today’s agenda) should be covered quickly, whilst subjects of great intrigue or importance (unmet needs, surprising findings) should be covered in layers, the suspense building. To draw an analogy from the world of music, think Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody rather than Radiohead’s The Bends.
Storytelling is a crucial element of the senior market researcher’s toolkit. In truth, relatively few researchers reach a high level of proficiency at this skill, and a good proportion of research presentations are mechanic al and proficient rather than intriguing, fast-flowing, convincing and memorable.
For the sake of completion I will conclude by adding the tenth key ingredient of great storytelling – the ability to take on board scathing criticism. My erstwhile boss may have temporarily shattered my self-esteem on that turbulent West Midlands day, but in doing so he subjected me to the market research storyteller’s most frequent challenge: the sceptical audience. Telling market research stories to client-side experts is not a job for the thin-skinned. Encourage criticism from colleagues, reflect upon it even when unrequested, and see your confidence and competence as a storyteller grow.
Master storytelling, and you truly are on the way to seeing your value as a researcher, not to mention your job satisfaction, soar.