Straight Talk about Storytelling: Q&A with Media Research Veteran Aaron Paquette

Aaron Paquette
In this next installment of our popular storytelling series, we talk with media and entertainment research veteran Aaron Paquette. Through his career at CBS, Sony, OTX, Nielsen and Vision Critical, Aaron has a great eye for how to tell a story that will get buyers’ and viewers’ attention.

Q: How do you think brands can better use storytelling techniques to sell products and services?

AP: Recently I was reading in Adweek about the results of an Origin/Hill Holiday survey demonstrating the financial value of storytelling in marketing. If a hotel guest sees a room advertised online, she perceives that room to be 5% more valuable when paired with a photo and story of a guest who stayed there. Seeing a painting combined with the artist’s story makes the painting 11% more valuable. Seeing product pages for wine with the winemaker’s story in lieu of tasting notes makes the bottle 6% more valuable. And a short piece of fiction alongside an eBay listing for novelty spoons can make those spoons a whopping 64% more valuable to bidders.

Q: Do those results surprise you? Why do you think that’s effective?

AP: They actually don’t surprise me, but it was great to see it summarized in that way. Stories are at the heart of humanity, how we understand ourselves, one another, the world around us, and our history. They convey our deepest hopes and darkest fears. They’re as old as humanity itself. And while the methods of storytelling have evolved greatly over the years from cave drawings to live theater to publishing to film to radio to TV to the desktop computer to mobile devices, the basic tenets have remained the same. We establish a premise; we generally introduce some kind of disruption or conflict into this premise; we intensify that conflict until it seems almost unbearable or unsolvable; and then we present a resolution.

Q: Speaking of TV… of course television is a storytelling medium, but how much to do you see story structure impact viewer sentiment during your research relative to, say, the characters or the premise?

AP: Well, the storytelling structure I described does several things for the audience: it captures and holds their attention; it plays to their emotions; it helps organize the information in their minds; it helps them remember it all; and it provides a template for them to relay the story to others.

In the absence of this storytelling structure, we’re left presenting to our audience a jumble of disconnected detail that they tune out of, don’t care about, can’t process in their minds, quickly forget, and don’t share with others. Across the hundreds, if not thousands, of programs I’ve tested throughout my career, we’ve always told producers about the need for a “journalistic opening” to their programs. “Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell them. Then tell them what you’ve told them.”  We also say, “We never hear complaints about clarity.”  Frequently when a program doesn’t test well, it’s not because viewers are rejecting the talent or characters or premise; it’s an issue with the storytelling, frequently in the beginning. Too often viewers start watching a program and don’t know how they should be watching it, or the rules of the world they’re visiting, or where it’s all going, or why they should care. Sometimes they’re led to believe a program is going to be about one thing, and it turns out to be about another. And sometimes the beginning of the program makes an implicit promise that the rest of the episode doesn’t fulfill.

Frequently when a program doesn’t test well, it’s not because viewers are rejecting the talent or characters or premise; it’s an issue with the storytelling…

Q: As someone who has relied on dial testing in television research, how has the methodology enhanced your ability to learn what viewers really think?

AP: Dial testing is a great way of identifying these storytelling issues. I tend to look at the dial trace on a “micro” level to see how the individual beats are playing, and then on the “macro” level to see how viewers are responding over time, and whether their interest is gradually building, stagnating or declining. Sometimes you can tell when a storytelling beat isn’t playing because of an immediate dip in interest. Other times, it’s like a tire gradually losing air, and you can trace back to where it picked up that “nail” and interest began leaking out.

Q: Back to storytelling for business…how do you use storytelling to win new business and deliver results to clients?

AP: Not coincidentally, I try to use storytelling structure throughout the life cycle of the project. When I’m pitching a client, I present a story about why we’re the best choice for the project, with a beginning, middle and an end. When I verbally present results right after the test, I follow a structure to quickly, methodically, yet diplomatically, cover all the relevant information. And when I issue my final report, I follow a well-worn template to ensure that any end user with any amount of time or knowledge of research can get the answers she needs. So I try to “walk the walk” that I preach to clients in producing their creative content.

Thanks, Aaron. Insightful, as always. For more of Aaron’s thoughts check out our prior conversation where he “raises the curtain” on entertainment research and online dial testing.