I cut my teeth on storytelling when I tried to write a Mills & Boon romance in my 20s. I had a cracking pseudonym, Verity Lovechild, but my manuscript was (rightly) rejected. You hear people saying that you just have to get the formula right, and then writing them is a breeze. Well, I’m here to tell you that they are difficult.

Seasoned romance writers will tell you that the tough thing is to keep on having plausible reasons for the hero and heroine to keep falling out with each other when they are basically besotted. Managing the eddies of conflict is pivotal to success. Recalling this puts me in mind of my favourite quote about stories, by John Le Carré, who said in a Paris Review interview: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not the beginning of a story, but ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat is’.”

What Le Carré knows, as the authentic master storyteller, is that conflict sits at the heart of all great stories.

We need to focus on this. But first, a bit of scene setting is in order. There has been a huge buzz about storytelling in the worlds of research, advertising, marketing and branding for some time now. Like a lot of new business or cultural ideas, it hasn’t come from nowhere, but nor has it arrived fully formed. It’s leaked into our collective discourse, and wobbled around like a beach ball in the sea: colourful, visible to all, yet with no clear sense of where it will end up.

Compared to other concepts that roll around in business and become fashionable, I’d contend that storytelling is even more confusing to get your head round, because intuitively we all know what stories are. Don’t we? Those sometimes funny, sometimes scary, but always compelling tales that we’ve heard from childhood. So how come we don’t know how to make the most of the current storytelling zeitgeist in business?

My own sense is that, like a lot of fashionable ideas, storytelling has quickly become something of a fat word. It’s used in a variety of different ways, all of which are valid, but leading to people talking at cross-purposes. Not only that, but the emphasis of storytelling can shift around, depending on whether you are a researcher, a brand writer, or a brand strategist.

Breaking story telling down

So I’d like to use the first part of this article to propose a taxonomy of storytelling for researchers. I then want to concentrate on how an understanding of stories and their intrinsic conflict can improve the quality of our work for clients, and give us more fulfilment and satisfaction at the same time.

Storytelling conundrums

The following are all aspects of storytelling that I’ve heard people in the research community puzzle over

  1. Stories
    By which we’re talking about their essential structure. For research purposes, stories are of most use to us when we’re thinking about our response to the brief and the overall structure of a project.

  2. The craft of storytelling
    Here, we’re talking about the storytelling toolkit in the service of making our reports and presentations come to life. It’s a very long list of tools, but includes characterisation (giving space to individual participants’ stories); simile, metaphor and analogies (to add richness and emotional truth, not just reportage); changes of pace and focus (think of the zooming in and out of filmmaking); narrative point of view (who is telling this story?) and so on.

  3. Storytelling as a methodology
    There are a variety of techniques, but what they have in common is asking participants to write stories, either about their own life as a consumer, or to create and imagine the brand as a character in a story. This latter technique is particularly good for seeing how people view the dilemmas that brands face and how they could resolve them.

  4. Oral storytelling
    We have the debrief presentation in mind here. It’s the show. When we hear someone saying, “She’s a great storyteller,” we know she’s not being praised for writing novels, but for holding our attention when she has the floor. This is all about oral skills, and it is beyond the scope of this set of articles, even though it’s often lumped in as part of our general interest in storytelling. In reality, this aspect is best addressed by presentation skills, for which there are dozens of training courses. I won’t go on about this any more, except to say that if you get the first two elements right, the physical delivery of it stands a much better chance.

Let’s now look at the first of these items in more detail, in the particular sense of how stories can best serve our needs as researchers.

In essence, the definition of a story is very simple. What they all share is a hero, or protagonist, a scenario which is full of conflict (the hero is set against another person, or God, or nature, or society or even oneself) and then a whole sequence of events, typically called the plot, through which that conflict is resolved. That resolution is the ending. It’s important that the scenario at the end is different to the one at the beginning.

Returning to Le Carré, he is entirely right with his insight. Stories work because they put us in touch with our essential humanity, and the conflict and dilemmas that we face. Stories fully engage our emotions. We wonder what we’d have done in the same circumstances, we get the chance to think about change, or things that matter to us, about the choices we make, and the impact on us of choices other people make. Ultimately, they are the best and most enjoyable way we’ve invented to help us make sense of our place in the world.

Pausing to read back over that last sentence, it’s no wonder that the worlds of insight, business and branding are currently fixated with storytelling. The landscape of client insight looks curious to me right now. I don’t know if others feel this way, but I see two simultaneous tensions, pulling in opposite directions like taut suspension bridge cables: the pressure for ever more statistically accurate, empirically based data on the one hand, and more emotional intelligence or even metaphorical truth on the other. This is much more than just a call for better quantitative and qualitative research and it’s often coming from the same clients in the same briefs.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Staying with the bridge simile, a suspension bridge pillar has to be in dynamic tension with the pillar on the opposite side to do its job. The call for powerful, substantive data is almost bound to correlate to a call for more intuitive, human insight. And as statistical data becomes more rigorous and reliable, it gives more freedom, perhaps even more obligation, to add in the human colour through bolder dramatisation and more overt, confident storytelling. I suspect that we’re not in the middle of a storytelling fad right now, but part of a long term corrective to emotionless business decisionmaking that hasn’t served us well.

All well and good, but you could legitimately come back with the riposte that you rarely see a request for storytelling in a client brief. And I’d agree with you. But go back to the brief and look more closely at that first section, which normally goes under the name of ‘Background’, or some such. Here’s one, debranded and adjusted sufficiently to make it untraceable but essentially faithful to how it landed in our inbox.

Storytelling starts with a brief

The UK x market has grown significantly in recent years and despite the current economic situation industry figures suggest a 5% annual increase in customer numbers within the market. This builds on previous years to give a 51% increase in total numbers since 2005. This market growth has been supported through new product launches (including our own) and has taken place against a backdrop of heavily increased competition. With over 100 years of history behind us, we continue to be positioned at the premium end of the market. Our own product launches have increased our capacity to serve the market, but despite the general buoyancy, our financial performance in 2011 was disappointing, and indications in 2012 are that this year might be a struggle as well. The key questions within the business are as follows:

  1. Have we invested in more growth than is right for the position of our brand?
  2. Have the new competitors made a structural change to the market that means we have to rethink what our brand stands for?
  3. What is the size business that will enable us to be most profitable?

All this doesn’t quite suggest a debrief that starts ‘Once upon a time... does it? And yet, all the classic story components are there: a hero (the brand); an antagonist (the competition); a complex scenario (the state of the market) and a potential set of events. What will the resolution be?

It’s rich stuff, and a more or less open door to take a storytelling approach to answering the brief. If the brand is the hero of the story, how has he historically been seen by all the people he comes into contact with (i.e. current customer perceptions)? How will they react if the hero changes to react to this stranger (brand stretch potential in the face of competition)? And on we go.

If there’s an anxiety here, perhaps that worry is about a perceived lack of rigour. But to state the blindingly obvious, good storytelling is not just about the quality of the story, it’s about the quality of the telling. Doing that involves choices, editorial decisions about what is in and what is out. And that is just as true of a dull, reportage-style debrief as a vivid, story-based one. It is simply that the story-based style is more obviously editorial, because it commits itself to its narrative point of view rather than hiding behind the formal conventions of debriefese.

So should we approach all briefs as storytelling projects? Personally I’d say not. There are still plenty of briefs that are about pure preference (A vs. B), or refining propositions or products that are nearly ready to come to market, where the conflict really isn’t there, or isn’t sufficient to conceive of the project in storytelling terms. But having said that, it’s still legitimate to use the craft of storytelling toolkit to create compelling and memorable reports and present them with panache.

The researcher's role

In summary, our raison d’être as researchers is to be of the most service we can be to our clients. And, when you come across briefs like the one shared previously, and get underneath the business language and the statistics, what clients are really looking for is a vivid description of where their brand can go. As we all instinctively know, in our day jobs there is no one version of the truth, just a series of valid ones. Storytelling-based research is rooted in that belief and follows it through to its destination.

The risk of putting ourselves on the line, the risk of leaping across the corporate divide and the risk of connecting with clients as human beings rather than businesspeople.

But the opportunity is extraordinary. I’m reminded of a quite unbearably moving French film called Sarah’s Key, made in 2010, the closing line of which goes like this: “When a story is told, it is not forgotten. It becomes a part of who we were, and of what we can become.” Let’s go tell some stories.