What’s the Story with Market Research?
Q&A with Author and Leading Business Storytelling Expert Paul Smith

paul smith storytelling expert

I think one of the most critical roles market researchers can play in the story development process is identifying the right stories to tell.

There’s been an interesting convergence going on between the art of storytelling and the science of market research. And for those who’ve been following our blog, we’ve been hitting this topic for some time, including some of our most popular Q&As with serial storyteller Kristin Luck and data visualization expert Derrak Richard. Today, we have the fortune of chatting with an authority on storytelling who also happens to have decades of experience as a top market research exec.

Paul Smith is the author of the recently-released Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale. He’s a former director and 20-year veteran of the Procter & Gamble Company, and one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and the bestselling author of three books on harnessing the power of storytelling, including Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story. We talked with Paul about the role storytelling plays in market research and vise-versa. Here’s a recap of our discussion:

What do you think is driving the push for better storytelling, especially in business, in recent years?

My first reaction is that the media we consume has become shorter and shorter, culminating in 140-character Tweets and 6-second Vines. Humans naturally long for stories, and we’ve not been getting our daily minimum.

My second reaction, however, is that if my answer ended there, it might suggest that if that trend reversed itself, business storytelling would no longer be as important. But I don’t believe that. It’s the oldest form of communication known to man. We’ve been telling stories since we were drawing pictures on cave walls. I advocate better storytelling because it works, not because it’s trendy.

What do you see as market research’s role in developing effective business storytelling strategies?

I think the most critical and unique role market researchers can play is identifying stories to tell. A lot of people will have opinions on how your business stories should be crafted – the brand manager, marketing director, ad agency, the external relations department, and the CEO. But the most important part of crafting a great story is choosing which story to tell.

And as the group most in touch with your consumers and audiences, you’re in the best position to spot those stories worth telling. In your interaction with those people, you’re looking for moments marked by either emotion or surprise — moments when someone laughed uncontrollably, or was moved to tears, or widened their eyes, or fell mute in stunned silence. At those moments, a great story is about to be either born, or forever lost. Capture them. Use the interview skills you’ve been trained to use. Ask open-ended questions to uncover what was behind those reactions. What lead up to them and what did it mean to them.

Give someone else the pleasure of writing copy and wordsmithing. If you uncover a powerful enough story, there’s almost nothing anyone else can do to ruin it.

Working in market research, we hear all the time how data need to be turned into stories in order to make them more compelling and easier for all types of stakeholders to embrace and internalize. What is your advice to the market research industry related to reporting findings in more of a storytelling way?

Two of the most useful techniques for telling stories with data are the “How we got here” story, and the “Discovery Journey” story.

The “How we got here” story works by walking the audience through the data in chronological order, illustrating how you’ve arrived at the situation you’re in now. It works well with time-series data, especially when it shows the result after some intervention.

Imagine a sales trend chart showing revenues in four consecutive quarters, Q1 to Q4: $30M, $30M, $26M, and $33M. You could explain this by saying, “As you can see, the intervention we put in place at the end of Q3 completely reversed the decline in sales. Let me explain what we did . . .” followed by all the details. That’s fine. And that’s the way most people would share the data. But it’s not a story.

Instead, you could explain it in story form: context, challenge, conflict, resolution. You’d start by explaining how quarterly sales had been steady at $30M through Q2 (that’s context). And then in Q3, you had a 13 percent decline (that’s the challenge). Then, you explain that you and your team developed and implemented a plan to reverse it by saying, “So, here’s what we did. . .” (this is the conflict). You finish with, “And as you can see, sales are now up to record levels,” which is the resolution. Now, it’s a story.

The “Discovery Journey” story is very different. You’re not walking the audience through the data in chronological order. You’re walking them through your analytical process in chronological order. In other words, the main character of this story isn’t the business. It’s you. Same data, different main character. In this story, you walk the audience through the work you did right up to the point that you had your aha moment. But instead of simply telling them your conclusion, you give them the opportunity to draw that conclusion themselves.

The goal here is to let your audience have that same aha moment you had when you came up with your brilliant idea by telling them your journey of discovery. People are more passionate about pursuing their ideas than they are your ideas. The Discovery Journey story turns your ideas into their ideas.

You’ll find great examples of both these kinds of stories in Chapter 22 of Sell with a Story (Telling Stories With Data).

Sell with a Story by Paul Smith

Related to market research, and business in general, how has the rise of social networks changed the dynamics of business storytelling?

First, it’s obviously given us more communication channels to connect with our audiences. We used to have three: television, radio, and print.

Second, all of those old communications vehicles were one-way communication. We had monologue. Now we have dialogue. We can tell our stories and listen to their stories.

Third, it’s extended the duration of our storytelling in both directions. Communication used to be 30-60 seconds on air or quarter to half a page in print. No more. No less. Now those stories can be as short as 140-character Tweets or 6-second Vines, and they can be as long as an on-line manifesto or downloadable book!

In your previous role as director of consumer research at P&G, what marketing and research methods were most effective in gathering the intel you needed to develop your brand and product stories?

I don’t use the term “brand story.” The reason is that in my experience what most people mean by brand story isn’t really a story at all. It’s usually a brand equity statement, or a description of what you want the brand to stand for.

To capture consumer or product stories (e.g., stories of consumers interacting with your product), the two best tools you can have are an experienced qualitative researcher and a video camera.

In your book Sell with a Story, you mention that developing a “Hook” is one of the most challenging aspects of storytelling. Are there specific research techniques or tools that you’ve used to help develop or refine your hook?

I don’t think a specific technique is as important at finding the hook as is knowing what a hook is and what role it plays in a story.

The hook is a short phrase or sentence at the beginning of a story that answers the following question for the listener: “Why should I listen to your story?” If you can’t answer that question adequately in the first few seconds, they might walk away, by either physically, mentally, or emotionally checking out.

Here are some examples for the kind of stories you personally tell around the office during presentations, emails, phone calls, or in your research reports: If you’ve been asked a question and want to answer with a story, the hook might be, “I think the best example of that I’ve ever seen was. . .” Or, if you’ve just heard about a problem and want to offer an opinion or recommendation, you might say, “That’s a tough problem. Let me tell you what I did when I ran into the same issue last year. . .” Or even if you aren’t prompted at all, you can start out by saying, “Hey, something really important happened last week, and I thought you’d like to hear about it. . .”

In all three cases, your audience knows that you’re about to tell them something important to them personally. They’ll almost certainly be interested in listening. But in order to do that properly, you need to know what it is that your audience cares about and what they’re interested in. And that’s where your research skills can serve you well.

Dial testing, like similar in-the-moment tools, allow researchers to gather in-the-moment, visceral reactions and feedback. How can this type of feedback (as opposed to the recall-based feedback we typically get from surveys and questionnaires) add value to the storytelling development process?  

I think those are great tools for identifying powerful stories waiting to be discovered. As mentioned above (question #2), I think one of the most critical roles market researchers can play in the story development process is identifying the right stories to tell. And as mentioned, the best way to find undiscovered stories is to probe an interesting topic with consumers (or customers or retailers or suppliers), and look for moments of peak emotion and surprise. Unless you’re doing one-on-one interviews, it’s almost impossible to notice in every participant all the subtle physical cues you’d need to notice.

I suspect dial testing can do that much easier with the right dial prompts.

Thanks to Paul for his time and his insights. You can hear more from Paul on his website or connect with him on Twitter at @LeadWithAStory or on Facebook.