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“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten” - Rudyard Kipling

Published under Research Methods
Written by Josh Brinkers

I really love telling stories. It’s just a great thing to do. When I was growing up I always wanted to be a writer, and I still get the urge now and then to get things down on paper – even if it’s just an anecdote from my travels or an idea I think is worth exploring. The stuff I come up with doesn’t tend to go anywhere (or get read by anyone other than my wife), but I still think it’s a useful skill to practice. It works your creative muscles, keeps your writing sharp and speeds the process of structuring ideas in your head.Storytelling’s a great way to deliver information too, because it’s a thing humans are naturally inclined to do. When I see my mates in the pub on a Friday night, I don’t describe my past week as a list of observations and events. I tell it as a story, just like they do when they tell me about theirs. Telling a story engages an audience; it provides an emotional connection that a bullet-point list of facts fails to do.

Honestly, I think that connection’s something that’s missing from the vast majority of research debriefs. Too often are they little more than a dressed-up string of observations gathered during the research period: ‘conversion is currently at 20% / the main barrier to purchase is a lack of available staff / generally stores are regarded as tidy and well-kept’. It’s all a bit clinical, and the first of two problems I see in a lot of debriefs.

The second issue is partially a result of the first, and has been a known phenomenon for over 60 years. In 1956 George Miller proved that the average human can only maintain 7±2 pieces of information in working memory. That’s not much, and considering that the average debrief can easily shoot past 40 slides (each with dozens of pieces of data on them) we genuinely might be feeding audiences more than they can chew. Less really is more - I don’t think anyone can expect point 226 of a 341-point report to be met with much other than stifled yawns and glazed eyes.

Putting these two issues together means the average debrief is probably a bit too long, much too detailed and maybe a bit boring. So how do we get past these issues?

As you’ve probably guessed, I think storytelling techniques might be the answer. Firstly, they provide a framework which ensures a presentation remains concise and useful throughout – starting off with a central point to make and carrying that through a defined beginning, middle and end keeps things on-track and moving forward. We’re paid to inform, and keeping to a traditional storyteller’s arc makes sure we always see the wood for the trees.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, is it adds what Aristotle called (stick with me here) Pathos - an element of persuasion which essentially translates to an appeal to emotion. That is, arguments, no matter how trustworthy or logical, are always more persuasive when they stir something inside you. Simple storytelling techniques like emphasising conflict to build tension, use of characters to humanise abstract ideas, or even an emotive title engage audiences because they cause an emotional reaction. If people feel like they’ve invested in what you’ve got to say, chances are they’ll take whatever that is on board.

I feel having this sort of thinking in-mind recently has made my presentations tighter and, ultimately, more useful. Plus, the fact that I can tell myself I’m writing stories for a living means I did manage to become a writer after all. Sort of.