Fake news in research – beware the narrative fallacy

Since tribal tales were recounted around a campfire by our ancestors, the human ability to find narratives compelling, persuasive, and memorable has never dimmed.  So it is not surprising that recent improvements in story-telling in the insights industry have been greeted with barely disguised relief by story-starved audiences.

Clients want presentations with drama, visual metaphors and ‘surprise and delight’ elements that land key messages in ways that are attention-grabbing and memorable.

But. There is a reason why research presentations have historically followed the traditions of empiricism – method, findings, conclusions. It’s because research is supposed to test hypotheses objectively, find the unvarnished truth.

As we have freed our inner yarn-spinner, has the role of truth been diminished?  The narrative fallacy describes a tendency to celebrate the story over the facts. It’s a form of confirmation bias. In the analysis process, it is very common and frankly very human to run with observations that support your pet theory and to side-line those that don’t. In many cases the net result of a story-led approach is positive – even if the answer we present to our clients is only 95% right, the benefit that clarity brings is worth far more than the missing 5%. But in some cases the charm of the tale actually leads to selling in an answer that is, well, wrong enough to lead to a bad decision. A good story can be compelling without being true.

Being conscious of our own human failings, we’re duty-bound to guard against the risks of the narrative fallacy without reverting back to boring, dry test results.

Our solution is conceptually simple, but tough to achieve.  All important messages we deliver need to be both true and persuasive:

  • True: it needs to be logically correct and supported by the evidence. Analysis will be based on objective facts and presented with a clear logical form.  We do this first so that you can be confident that our findings are rooted in truth.
  • Persuasive: it needs to be compelling, with a clear narrative that adds emotive power and memorability to the message. We apply our storyboarding and storytelling skills after we’ve worked out what the right answer is.

When you work with us, you should get a slick, bite-size presentation that’s engaging and easy to buy into, while also having the virtue of being objectively right. At this point our last job is to make the communication ‘portable’, so it becomes yours, not ours.  By this we mean easily communicable onward to other stakeholders in a way that ensures the message is not diluted or corrupted.

So don’t suspend your critical faculties just because a master story-teller is weaving a great story about your brand. Insist on truth as well as entertainment.