Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Once Upon a Time…They Lived Happily Ever After: Storytelling in Market Research

When I was a young pup in the market research industry, circa 1985, I was in graduate school working on my doctorate in psychology and serving as a graduate student intern at JC Penney headquarters in Manhattan on 8th Avenue across from the Winter Garden where Cats had been playing for years and years.  It was a very exciting time in my life as I was beginning my career juxtaposed between “book life” and “school life,” and being challenged to reconcile the stark differences between the two.  Every day, I toggled between the conceptual and the practical in my pursuit of becoming a research professional; some days, I’d toggle so hard, I’d pull a muscle and needed to stretch in order to work out the kinks that had developed.

At Fordham University, I was trained to write like an academician.  At JC Penney, I was criticized for doing so, and urged to write simply, succinctly, and to do so in a style that would enable the reader to become enmeshed in the words I put forth.  I must admit, it was a battle that was waged, in my head, and I ultimately allowed the academic side to win.  I thought, if my writing style reflected my educational training displayed by using multi-syllabic, highfalutin language, others would see me as “smart.” 

Man, was I stupid.  I had no intention of becoming a professor; rather had set my sights only on being a practitioner.  But I couldn’t help leading with my degree, to declare, without saying, to everyone in the room at almost every given time, that I was highly educated.  Throughout my internship, I never strayed from that posture and, in hindsight, it never benefited me.

Then I graduated and went to work for a large advertising agency in NY.  Early on, I literally got my ass kicked by writing reports in a style that was better suited to publication in a scholarly journal.  I was no longer an intern; now I was a paid employee and was working on studies that were delivered at high cost to our clients.  But I remained steadfast to my style, stubbornly clinging to my degree and what (I thought) it meant to others in my sphere of colleagues.  Needless to say, my boss was not patient with my learning curve as I struggled to write reports, and even questionnaires, that were easy to understand and digest.  Indeed, ones that clearly tied back to the purpose of the study and the business objectives at hand.

As time went by, I was assigned to a new boss who took me under his wing and worked with me closely.  I’ll never forget one (late) night at the office working on a report that needed to be delivered before deadline when he said “your report needs to read like you are telling a story.”  It needs a beginning that draws in the reader, a middle that states what the study found, and an end that draws conclusions and provides closure to the reader on the subject matter such that he or she takes away the key learnings of what the study was designed to discover.  In essence, the whole report must be a story that leaves the client with clarity on what decisions need to be made to drive business and why. 

That experience was a career milestone for me.  It was a great lesson that, not only provided the motivation to improve, but taught me the lesson that my work was not about me.  Rather, it forced me to stare straight into the eyes of the main purpose of what I was doing -- helping clients figure out how to improve their own businesses.  It finally dawned on me that storytelling was the way I was going to practice my profession.  As a psychologist, I was trained to be compelled to help my clients in any way I could, and so I took this lesson about storytelling and ran with it as a way to do just that.

Fast forward to nowadays.  Our firm, Accelerant Research, has instituted a kind of “teaching hospital” model whereby we hire some staff at an entry level position as Project Analyst.  They come to us without any particular set of market research skills, and we train them to become professionals by having them work directly with seasoned veterans who teach them all of the skills they need to become proficient as market research suppliers.  They first learn how to program surveys and then write them.  They learn how to design PowerPoint decks that will serve as the final report, how to read crosstabs and populate .ppt slides with results, and then how to write the report itself.  These rookies in the biz learn how to leverage previously written deliverables to learn how to execute the entire development of a final version deliverable that is “client-ready.”  But what they get from archived studies is a set of stories told, across a wide variety of study objectives, methodologies, industries, and findings.  Each one accessed reads like a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end. 

The secret to success as a market research supplier is hardly a secret at all.  Rather, the key is widely known and has been around for a very long time.  That is, to design and deliver to clients the answers that have been sought by the research undertaking, and the formatting of these answers in a way that laypeople (the folks actually paying for the research) can easily understand and digest.  The products of our efforts as research professionals must be in the form of a story such that one’s conceptualization of the findings and recommendations fit like a glove into the needs to inform marketing strategies.  At AccelerantResearch, delivering insights in this manner is our ultimate promise.