It is a challenge that follows marketing and consumer research for many years: How to get not only the interest of business decision-makers in the findings from research but also their readiness to implement their lessons from the research? More than being intrigued and interested in the details of analytic findings, business decision-makers (e.g., owners, marketing executives, brand managers) wish to know what to do about those findings. Quite frequently the missing link seems to be true understanding of the meanings and implications of the findings as these are presented to the decision makers. A different way of presenting and communicating the findings and their implications is called for — a way that tells a story about the findings rather than reports them. Enlivened stories, it is believed, better enable business decision-makers to draw their own lessons and advance to implement respective action plans.
About thirty years ago, research findings were usually reported in word-processing documents (e.g., MS Word) with lots of text and numeric tables, and some charts. Since the early 2000s, research findings have been reported mostly in slide presentations (e.g., MS PowerPoint) with many colourful charts and less text. In more recent years, we can also see an increased use of dashboard displays, (interactive) panels consisting mostly of charts and numbers with little text. The problem is that combining findings and integrating information into a cohesive and comprehensive picture of a state-of-affairs, and its implications, can be daunting and confusing for research users. Conclusions and recommendations (added as annotations, chapter summaries, bullet-lists at the beginning and end of a report) are not necessarily helpful enough. They sometimes seem detached from the findings, and they do not truly help in seeing through the findings (or more so, through the numbers). Data visualisations can help focus on and clarify some aspects (e.g., with infographics), but still may not be sufficiently instructive in seeing the whole picture. The idea is to build-up a story from the findings, that combines or knits any parts of them together, making it sound and feel more tangible, easy to recognise their applicability to real-world situations, and relate to. Truly, this is easier said than done, especially for researchers who are deeply familiar with the findings and how they were generated (e.g., methods and models of analysis).
Michael Callero, writing in an article for Quirk’s MR website , describes the experience of a researcher who presents the findings and conclusions from his research to a seemingly fascinated managerial audience, most engaged, nodding, asking questions, and complimenting — but after a while it turns out that the research has been left aside, and no actions were taken upon it. Almost needless to say, this is a frustrating experience. Detailed pictures, Callero suggests, are not always clear to perceive and understand; sometimes, pictures of objects (e.g., a house, a dog, a tree) drawn with larger strokes, like with a big blue crayon, can be grasped and identified much more easily (hence he named his firm The Big Blue Crayon). Conveying findings in the fashion of a story should do the same. Details that are masking the essence and meaning of the findings, and are only disturbing comprehension, should be cleared out; then, what truly matters should be rearranged and told like a story in a way that ‘talks’ to the audience of decision makers in their language, literally and in the context of business or marketing issues they face. The story should guide to actions that can be taken to correct or improve on a matter at stake.
It is not intended that researchers should choose to apply simpler, more basic statistical methods or models, just because their managerial clients might have difficulty to understand their results. It is a common concern of researchers, but Callero argues it is a misinterpretation of his recommendation. Researchers are not advised to use methods that could be weaker, less suitable or capable, out of fear that the managers will reject the findings. On the contrary, researchers are encouraged to apply advanced methods and models as they see fit to answer their research questions; however, they need to “translate” and communicate their findings in a way that would resonate with their clients. (Note: Nevertheless, excessively complicating models in the name of ‘sophistication’ is not considered a positive practice, and it should be avoided — this is the rule of parsimony in good modelling.)
Suppose, for example, a research team has built an advanced segmentation model of consumers which reveals new and intriguing aspects about the motives and behaviour of a potential target segment. In introducing a persona representing that segment, a description of characteristics of the persona should be intertwined with illustration of the implications and suggestions of how certain marketing activities could have an impact on the behaviour of consumers in that target segment. In other words, the findings about the segment should be introduced in the form of a story about the persona and how it may change his or her behaviour in response to actions of the brand (e.g., Jim is highly conscious of changes in his health with age, so he keeps checking food labels and dedicates more time to activities that can lower risks to his health). Callero suggests that comprehension of business deciders can be improved if researchers restrict their use of technical terms (e.g., on methods, statistics or analytics) to explain their findings, and also include fewer Capitalised Words to emphasise various concepts, because too frequent use of them may interfere with the flow of the message.
Mike de Gagne of research firm Quantilope proposes that for a story to be ‘sticky’ (i.e., hold in people’s minds) it has to be memorable, have a personal angle, and be impactful (presenting in a webinar with Gianna Saladino for Quirk’s, ). Statistical results (e.g., from survey data) are not so much memorable — that is where the story comes in. The task of the researcher is to identify what in the findings matters, could make a difference, and have behavioural or marketing consequences; visualisation of the analytic results is a useful aid for extracting a core idea. Then a researcher has to come up with the appropriate narrative for embedding the core idea in a memorable, personal and impactful story. De Gagne makes an analogical comparison of the difference between a ‘dry’ report of findings and an illustrative story with the difference between the ‘technical’ character of Peter Parker and the hero figure of Spiderman.
- Paul Rao of Gatorade/PepsiCo gives another interesting analogy about dinosaurs in this regard. During research, archeologists (or paleontologists) lay down the bones of a dinosaur dug from the ground, removing the dirt and anything else that does not belong, in order to study the historic animal. But in a museum, the researchers would reconstruct a standing skeleton of the dinosaur for display to visitors, because that would make it easier for visitors to understand than if the bones were scattered on the floor. 
To keep things in perspective, research reports in one form or another (i.e., balancing verbal and visual information) are not truly redundant. The more detailed results and explanations of the research methodology may help professionals on the client side to evaluate the reliability of findings and quality of analyses; results at the deeper level can be instrumental when devising together with managers or executives the implementation of action plans. However, when business decision makers as clients need to figure out at first what the findings imply, what is important about them, and what could be done about them, telling a story about the core idea of the findings can be of great value. The impact of the story would be especially appreciated when told in presentations in person to an audience of the business decision makers.
There is concern that storytelling could downgrade the level of marketing and consumer research; on this view, ‘storytelling’ is just a nice way for justifying a less professional, more casual presentation of research work and its outcomes. Yet, it really depends on when and how storytelling is being applied. An important distinction should be made: Sophistication can be maintained during the research process (e.g., use of advanced methods or models, keeping with professional or academic standards of data collection and analysis), while simplification can be adopted for delivering the findings of research and their implications to the clients, as can be done through telling stories. Stories are legitimate and beneficial if they allow business deciders to better grasp the meaning and insights from the findings and figure out what can be done consequently.
 Practical Tips for Increasing of Your Marketing Research Insights, Michael Callero (The Big Blue Crayon), Quirks.com, 28 November 2022 (registration required)
 Qauntilope Webinar: How to Tell Impactul Stories Through Data, presented by Mike de Gagne (senior VP sales) and Gianna Saladino (associate research manager) at Quantilope, Quirks.com, 17 November 2022 (registration required).
 Storytelling, In-house Research and Adaptation: Takeaways from November’ Wisdom Wednesday, Quirks.com (Maddie Swenson), 28 November 2022 (registration required; Paul Rao is director of consumer insights at Gatorade/PepsiCo)