Editor’s note: Jim Kraus is a principal with KS&R, a Syracuse, N.Y., research firm. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared here under the title “Writing high-impact reports.”
Recently, we’ve been getting a lot of feedback from clients about how their research partners are not doing a good job of “telling a story” in the reports they produce – which ultimately creates more work for them as in-house researchers and lessens the impact of the research itself. Based on discussions with them, I think the challenge is broader than that, as the complaints typically fall into one of the following categories (see if some of these are familiar to you):
- lots of data but very little insight;
- all the questions were answered/addressed but there is nothing that binds them together in a cohesive way that tells a story (often it’s just the sequence of questions asked in a particular questionnaire or discussion guide);
- key business questions that were the impetus for the research to begin with are buried in the report, inadequately addressed or even missing altogether;
- too much dense text, making it difficult to get through a report to figure out what is or isn’t important;
- for qualitative research, lots of respondent verbatims but no accompanying analysis to help interpret what they all mean (that work is left to the reader);
- for quantitative research, tables and tables of data but inadequate analysis of them or (at times) no evident rationale why certain data views/cuts are reported on in the first place;
- results are positioned in a way that does not take into account the culture of the client’s company or how its executives digest, interpret and act on the results;
- no (or weak) recommendations – inadequate assistance interpreting the findings and defining specific action steps to improve business performance.
Here are a few techniques we regularly employ with our clients to help overcome these challenges:
Spend sufficient time with the research sponsor to truly understand their objectives for the research. Sounds simple enough, but this is a step that is often done too quickly or not at all. This results in a surface understanding of the business objectives behind the research; no real understanding of the sponsor’s hot buttons or how key decisions are made in their particular business/function – all of which are required to develop a high-impact report that drives actions. Researchers should make the time (even insist on it) to ask the study sponsor the following types of questions:
- What key decision(s) will be made once results from the research are back? Probe for context around these decisions and as much specificity as possible.
- What are the initial hypotheses about what the research will indicate?
- To what extent do you think the research will confirm existing hypotheses versus uncover new/different perspectives? What are your expectations in this regard?
- What type of evidence is needed to support a particular decision and in what way can it best be delivered to inspire confidence in it?
- Who is likely to challenge the research findings the most? What are their hot buttons? What is required from the research to overcome their reservations?
Deep discussions around these questions provide researchers with critical information with which to develop a high-impact analysis and reporting plan. (Importantly, they will also improve the research design itself as well as increase the credibility of the research team exponentially – both of which improve the chances the research will actually impact key business decisions.)
Develop an analysis plan before any report writing starts. Fundamentally, an analysis plan charts a course for how research data (whether qualitative and/or quantitative) will be analyzed and reported. Rather than waiting for data collection to be completed, an analysis plan is done beforehand to give researchers time to think through key views of the data, specific types of analytics they will use (whether advanced or more basic), how the report will flow and what questions tie to key business questions the research is designed to answer.
Oftentimes an initial analysis plan is developed during the data collection period and then reviewed and fine-tuned before any report writing commences. The advantage of a well-thought-out analysis plan is that it gives researchers more time to think through the key objectives of the research and how they will be addressed in the report before the inevitable rush to get a report out once data collection is complete. This results in more thinking time with the data and consideration for how the results can best be reported and positioned to impact key business decisions.
Tell a story with the data. Stories have several distinct advantage versus mountains of data that are too common in the traditional research report. Stories:
- Make the complex simple. “Stuffed data” slides are typically overbearing and make it very difficult for the audience to understand and internalize key points. Stories work because they simplify what the data is saying which improves comprehension.
- Produce mental images. Activating someone’s imagination through a story exponentially increases their ability to comprehend a key point and makes it more impactful. Studies indicate that 80 percent of our brain is dedicated to visual processing.
- Persuade more than facts. Recently I read an anonymous online post where someone described storytelling as a way to “express our internal truths in ways humanity understands.” Through improved comprehension and connecting with your audience in a more emotional plane, stories can persuade people to action much more than dumping data point after data point on them.
Ultimately, research needs to inform key decisions and inspire actions and storytelling can help achieve both of these objectives.
Build in additional analysis and reporting time into your project plan, if possible. Easier said than done, I know! Depending on the study, we often ask our clients for two-and-a-half to three weeks of reporting time if they can spare it. We deliver what we consider to be “the data” report at the end of week two and “the story” at the end of week three. We also build in working sessions with our clients during this period to review early results and engage them in a dialogue about what the data is saying. Sometimes it’s neither possible nor necessary, but for critical studies this extra time allows us and the in-house research team to digest the data, mull over the key implications and develop a (more concise) deck that presents the results as a compelling story, one that will be more readily understood by a senior manager audience as well as more directive around recommendations and next steps. “Time is money” as they say but if a few extra days ultimately results in research that makes a bigger impact on business performance, then it’s well worth it.
As with any discipline, the value of market research will continually be assessed to determine its value to the business. Regardless of the research design or how well data is collected, ultimately the formulation of research results and recommendations (and the decisions/actions they foster to improve performance) is the final “measuring stick” of a study’s value. We have seen the approaches outlined above work exceptionally well with within our clients’ organizations. We hope they do for you as well!