Storytime: Jo Farquhar in conversation with Mike Kernot

You may have noticed a theme in our recent newsletters… Storytelling is an integral part of our lives both personally and professionally – whether we use it proactively or not.

As researchers’ we know that it is one of our most powerful tools. So the next few weeks will continue to be dedicated to exploring the nuanced paths, realms and depths of storytelling in all its many forms, and importantly how we can harness it to better communicate with our peers.

In this blog Jo Farquhar takes on the role of interviewer (or narrator, if you like) to speak to her colleague Mike Kernot about his experiences and views on storytelling since he began working in market research many moons ago.

“Let’s start with your personal story Mike…tell me about your journey – why did you choose to work in market research?”

“I think it’s recognised in our industry that a lot of people tend to fall into research rather than necessarily choosing it. My story was similar to that – a university lecturer mentioned it to me one day. It was a throw away comment, but it got me interested in the industry.

I think the reason I learned to love what we do was partly the variety, but also that you can get some real satisfaction from cracking a problem.”

“I know what you mean about the variety – the fact that during any given week you can be working on projects ranging from banking to convenience retail to travel definitely keeps things interesting.

You mentioned before the ‘satisfaction from cracking a problem’. Tell me a bit more about what you mean here?”

“Our profession exists to help answer big questions, and at Incite we’re lucky to get some of the most challenging ones. There is something gratifying about creating a compelling argument.

Incite has a way of working that encourages the breaking down of problems, and the building back up of evidence to answer questions, but once that is done, you need to communicate it convincingly of course. That’s where storytelling comes in.”

“Do you think that’s why storytelling is so important in research?

“Absolutely. Good stories are powerful because they’re memorable – we still remember stories from our childhood. When research tells us there is a compelling change to make, or an opportunity to grasp, we need to do that story justice.”

“Can you share an example of great storytelling that you remember?”

“The one that comes to mind is probably the most impactful story I’ve seen. And I think that was because it was a combination of not just the content, but also how it was delivered.

It was about six years ago, we were working with a UK food retailer. The project was high profile but it was also hard! We were under pressure to have the project completed in record time, and the client could be a little ‘blunt’ to say the least. So the road to getting to the answer wasn’t easy.

But on the day, when we got to the moment that mattered, the performance of the person who delivered the presentation was outstanding. The story had a tension: it outlined the challenge, and highlighted the risks of inaction – in this case, declining share and missed targets. It also had a resolution, pointing to a clear opportunity for the brand.

But the tone and style really made the difference. It was delivered in an artfully concise and simplistic way. Thinking back, it was probably a bit ‘combative’ (I’m not saying that style is always needed), but I seem to remember it just got to the point and cut through brilliantly.”

“Can you tell us about the content?”

“That was partly it. It was about buying everyday products like milk – not exactly the makings of a box-office thriller. But during our research we’d found that there was an emotion that the client could tap into and leverage. That insight turned out to be powerful and the presenter did a brilliant job of explaining the implications.

On its own I don’t think the findings would have been especially memorable. It wasn’t just the content of the story, it was also the delivery that made it really impactful.”

“So you’re saying that it’s the combination of the content and the delivery of it that’s important?”

“Yes. The content needs to be evidence-based, and constructed in a concise, memorable way but the tone and style of delivery can make or break it.”

“As researchers, what can we do to get that delivery style right?”

“We aspire to be ‘trusted advisors’ to our clients. I think that means having a deep understanding of them and their organisation, as well as being emotionally intelligent and ‘tuned in’ to their working contexts and project stakeholders. In combination, this enables us to communicate with impact.”

“So what would be your top three tips for storytelling with impact?”

  1. Be choiceful about the evidence used to build the story: it’s tempting to share everything we’ve found out. But it needs to strike a balance between addressing the business question in a focused way, and tapping into relevant emotional insights, helping to make it more memorable. At Incite the story will typically involve shining a light on the opportunity that the research has unlocked, and why it matters.
  2. Collaboration is king: by collaborating along the way – for example by sharing emerging thoughts and iterating the story – you will get to a far better output than can be created in isolation.
  3. Delivery makes a difference: a debrief is the pinnacle of many months of hard work, and the delivery session is often the best opportunity we have to ensure our research lands with impact. Getting the tone right is key, especially if you have a challenging message to convey.

If you have a tricky data story to tell, drop us a line, we’d love to help.