The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Tricks of the other trade

Neil Griffiths discusses the craft of storytelling and what’s needed for market researchers to tell a better story to clients.

I am a novelist and a market researcher. There is overlap. Both require the evocation of people and what motivates them. It is thought by many writers that the only motivation that matters is what a character wants. It might be said that all a client ever requires from research is to understand what a respondent wants.

Of course, it’s more subtle than that; we’re after what respondents think. But what they think is often merely a branch of the more basic ‘what they want’. And talking of want, how many times have we heard a client say: “What we want is a clear story”, or “What’s the story?” And what do we say, apart from “OK — I’ll rework it”?

What we could instead say is “Are you sure you mean ‘story’? Maybe you mean ‘narrative’, or even ‘plot’?” To which they might, of course, reply “What’s the difference?” — or, very possibly, “No one likes a smart arse.”

But there is a difference, and it’s worth knowing: the best debriefs can include all three. First, let’s understand what ‘story’ is. This — Prince marries princess from far, far away and they live happily ever after — is not a story; neither will it win any prizes for originality; because yes: it’s just a fact.

This is a story: Prince marries princess from far, far away and finds out princess is really also a prince. A story is something that happens that’s worth telling and invites us as an audience to speculate on the outcome.

Speculate on outcome

I’m not sure that’s what clients want, or at least it’s not what they think they want, until it’s delivered with the energy of great storytelling. To speculate on outcome is to be involved, open, patient for the resolution. It is also to understand something deep about human nature, what motivates us, and how that is revealed in the world.

Narrative

Now on to ‘narrative’, which is what people usually think is story. Narrative is the writer’s decision about where to start and where to end the story, and how they are going to tell it. A strong narrative makes for a compelling debrief — it makes a ‘story’ more interesting, and let’s face it, not every debrief has an actual ‘story’.

One narrative device that can be particularly effective is flashback, especially if you’ve been working long term on a product or objective with a client. I’ve done this by pulling up a chart from years ago in the middle of the presentation — it can be a jolt, but it can also suddenly give deeper resonance to the story. People forget where the objectives for project B came from and sometimes need to be reminded of project A in its own context.

Equally, use of present tense, something novelists have increasingly used over the last 20 years will always add immediacy. It can feel awkward at first, but it works. More risky is the use of the second person — another recent development in novel writing. It’s a very clever device because the reader or listener oscillates between two perspectives: the ‘you’ of the piece (themselves) and the narrative voice, either ‘I’ or ‘they’. It’s not for every project, but worth trying out, again, to increase immediacy and get clients to internalise findings in ways that endless ‘they felt’, or ‘respondents tended’. But, as I say, high risk.

The plot

And then there is ‘plot’. Probably the least useful of the three in research presentations, but — if employed neatly and with control — something that will always keep the audience on its toes. A plot point in any story is essentially an accident on a straight road that forces a character off the road. It adds the unexpected. To my mind it means leading the client one way — to one conclusion — and then introducing the unavoidable piece of information that sends everything the other way. It’s a very compelling way of making it clear that one detail, one point of fact — a ‘black swan’ if you will — can have serious consequences and must not be ignored.

Character

One of the great paradoxes of human life is how similar and different we are at the same time. I would say we are similar and different in equal measure. As researchers we think similarity is more useful and helpful than difference. Difference is an irritant — it spoils the findings, the story even. But similarity can be misleading: it turns what is interesting, particular, revealing and ‘insightful’ into a kind of nothingness. Somebody becomes anybody and anybody becomes nobody.

The aim as a novelist is to create someone who exists in their own particularity. Novelists want readers to relate to their characters as people do to one another in real life. More so — they want readers to have a deeper understanding of people. Deeper, more insightful, more connected — these sound like objectives in a qualitative research brief!

To make a character ‘general’ in the hope that a lot of people will relate to them is a mistake. The same thing happens: somebody becomes anybody becomes nobody. But this is often what happens with so-called pen portraits, the nearest research comes to fiction. It is almost always what happens in segmentation — often the furthest research gets from saying anything meaningful at all about people. (I mean this as a provocation — if you want a workable, meaningful segmentation ask a novelist with a research background, not a quantitative analyst; and if you can’t find a novelist with a research background, find a researcher who has read a lot of quality fiction. And as for researchers: take creative writing courses, it really will help.)

I believe that human beings find in fictional characters a clue to their own particularity, and by extension, the particularity of those around them — which is, of course, our similarity. Put simply, it is through the lens of particularity that we reach a deeper sense of the human condition.

So how is it achieved? Let’s call it the pointillist approach — assembling a character from dabs of detail. I invite you to sample Light Years by James Salter:

‘Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set simplicity. aside. She was tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. When she paused to read a recipe, her head bent, she was stunning in her concentration, her air of obedience. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. People were coming for dinner.

She had trimmed the stems of flowers spread on the wood of the counter and begun to arrange them. Before her were scissors, paper-thin boxes of cheese, French knives. On her shoulders there was perfume.’

In my view, no better description of the inner life of a young wife at a sink has ever been written; no better description of a woman has been written. In these few lines you are taken as close as is possible to her home life, her tastes, her frustrations, and even — although one hesitates to draw a direct parallel between a work of art and FMCG — her shopping habits.

Prose style

No one writes a better short sentence than James Salter. When I teach, it is the short sentence I recommend. Firstly they are easier to control. They insist on full and rounded thoughts. We need to know what we are saying.

And what client doesn’t want clear, actionable bullet points? But there are problems with this reliance on simplicity.

What if the central insight isn’t clear, isn’t actionable? What if we need to express a complex feeling that isn’t even clear to the consumer? Perhaps a longer sentence is required. And then there is language itself. After all, few things in life are more ambiguous.

Language needs delicate handling, a good ear for internal harmonics, a subtle sensibility. Words do not disclose their meaning in isolation. To force a word to disclose itself we must play with syntax and context, finding ways to disrupt and force re-evaluation.

Yet short, declarative sentences are often shorn of these things. It may well be that to avoid any ambiguity is finally to avoid any meaning. Think about corporate speak. Not only does it fail to excite, fail to move, fail to evoke; in its striving to be clear it becomes interchangeable with the last piece of corporate speak, and ultimately says nothing.

In research debriefs I’m a fan of dropping in the occasional long sentence: one with numerous subordinate clauses, suddenly reversing on itself, sometimes even seemingly contradicting what, when it set out at the beginning, was its point — although by the end, if the argument coheres, what you have is a sense of something that could not have been articulated by a string of less complex sentences.

The following sentence has been edited for reasons of confidentiality but it demonstrates precisely what I've been talking about.

“[…] is an organisation that doesn’t appear to resonate as obviously with the respondent as we’d hoped, at least not spontaneously, although we found that if you listened carefully, each respondent tended, especially when talking to each other — less so to us — to pause before describing their relationship with […], as if it wasn’t quite the done thing to claim intimacy, something that might on the surface be regarded as a problem but which might also be interpreted as a kind of reverence — possibly too strong a word, but it gives you the best picture — an attitude that certainly wasn’t the case for its competitive set, which tended to be described in more disposable terms, suggesting that […] actually has burrowed deeply into its customer psyche — and while this is a positive in the long term, we suspect that brand health and growth depends on a slightly more open and relaxed use of the brand in the public conversation.”

Why might this be, on occasion, a better way to present insight? Firstly, it can be genuinely insightful — tacking around a thought that’s not easy to grasp, trying to move inwards to something that is hard to articulate for both respondents and researcher, yet which in the end discloses a key element of the story.

In pure process terms, a long sentence with all its clauses makes us work harder at our analysis, because as we write we are forced to move deeper into our own thoughts, to peer round corners in the hope that further illumination will allow us to go on and dig deeper. The energy, flow and rhythm of words, the simple accumulation of clauses, creates an inner harmony that can’t be heard when listing five key points. Writing long sentences demands real cognitive strain, which means we are thinking at our utmost, pulling in thoughts from every part of our work — not only the groups we’ve just run, but experience, the wider context, some synaptic region where the mystery of why we’re good at this job resides.

And if it all comes together there is always the chance that we will deliver something unexpected, original and maybe, if we’re really lucky, profound. Whether clients want this is another matter.

However — and this is something researchers could learn from novelists — the best novelists write for themselves and not their audience. Maybe we should do the same. It’s high risk, but ultimately our clients will thank us for it.

 

Neil Griffiths
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2013