“We’d like to make sure the report tells a story.” We hear this from clients all the time, usually at project kick-off.  Telling a story sounds easy enough, until you have to do it. So, what does it truly mean to ‘tell a story’ in business?

Short answer - it depends on who you ask. For those just beginning to add more empathy to their initiatives, it could mean adding more consumer quotations to bring the data to life. For others, ‘story’ could mean starting each section of a report with a chapter-style section break, like “The Consumer Journey Begins.” For those who have more experience with empathy-laden story, it could mean framing up the report to follow a Joseph Campbell-inspired Hero’s Journey.

At Ignite 360, we take a broad-minded approach to the concept of storytelling. For our purposes, storytelling must make the report, presentation, insights documentary, etc. more memorable, sticky and actionable, and therefore requires the following:

An Audience. Our clients, and their research and business goals are paramount. As Hollywood producer Peter Guber writes in Tell to Win, “You want to make sure your audience is with you. You can’t go anywhere without them.”

A Big Idea. Call it what you will - the meta-narrative, the mono-myth, the big idea, but every insights project has one. Why? Because stories have themes. Consumer stories are no different. 

Storytelling Tool(s). The art of storytelling has been around a long time. It makes sense then that there are a multitude of storytelling techniques from which to choose. Choose the right tools for the job.  


Human beings are meaning-seeking creatures; we crave narratives that have a beginning and an end - something that we rarely encounter in everyday life. Stories give coherence to the confusion of our experience.
— Karen Armstrong, Author

Beginning: What Are Your Research and Business Goals?


Just like Little Red Riding Hood, you can lose your way in research and business. So many insights come in, it’s important to stay on the path and not wander off into the woods.

Keep your client and their goals front and center while you craft your story.


Middle: What’s the Big Idea?


Every research project and insights exploration has a one – the Big Idea is the primary theme of the research findings. Yes, there may be subplots and cool insights, but everything will ladder up to the Big Idea. Once you identify it, articulate it into a single sentence. Presentation and design expert, Nancy Duarte neatly outlines the Big Idea Requirements as follows:

1)    “Your unique point of view”

Example: Organic cereal consumers identify strongly with farm values (genuine, welcoming, slower-pace).

2)    “What’s at stake for those who do or do not adopt your point of view.”

Example: Organic cereal package redesign must take into account the importance of the farm values or risk “losing the farm.”

3)    “These elements must be written in a complete sentence.”

Example: Messaging and packaging should reflect farm values - genuine, welcoming, slower-paced.


End: Our Top 5 Storytelling Tools


Meditating monk +

Meditating monk +

Harajuku girl = visual simile

Harajuku girl = visual simile

While storytelling can be visual, oral, or written, storytelling tools are universal. Always choose the best storytelling tool(s) for the job. What is going to best engage your audience? Here are some of our Go-To tools:

1)    Metaphor

Why we use it: It’s a heavy hitter, like Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. Metaphor is great for complex, multi-layered research because it’s powerful enough to hold a lot of ideas together.

How we’ve used it: People weren’t buying breakfast cereal like they used to. Our client wanted to know why. Turns out, one big reason is consumers felt like there were other options for breakfast that sustained them longer. The metaphor we used? Cereal is the Chinese food of breakfast. Protein-based breakfast cereal was born.

 2)    Simile

Why we use it: It’s like metaphor but the light version - great for sticky headlines and succinct big ideas.

How we’ve used it: Sometimes we use an image to convey the Big Idea. Visual simile is a great way to share a message. We had a beverage client who was introducing a new beverage. The brand evoked a premium experience; however, the new beverage proved to be a bit too carbonated and sweet for their liking. Using visual simile, we juxtaposed the image of a meditating monk (the sophisticated and more serious brand) alongside Harajuku girls (the “sweet and bubbly” beverage).

3)    Repetition

Why we use it: Once you’ve got a handle on the Big Idea, it’s important to echo it within the visuals and language. This is a great tool for large PPT decks.

How we’ve used it: For a movie theater concession stand research study, the Big Idea was that consumers wanted to experience movie magic at the concessions stand (not just in the theater). We repeated the theme of movie magic in the PPT deck with visuals (e.g. famous scenes from movies), and language (e.g. overtly using movie terms like “spotlight”, “plot”, etc.)

4)    Voice

Why we use it: Voice is a classic storytelling tool (e.g. the call and response of traditional storytelling, monologues, etc.). Voice is great for the consumer who has no voice or to create dialogue.

How we’ve used it: In a study on cat treats, we realized the Big Idea was that cats had purchase power. Owners weren’t going to buy treats if their cats didn’t like the treats. By creating a dialogue between cats and owners, we were able give the cats a voice. We used real consumer quotes along with cat “quotes” - like a straight man/funny man comedy sketch. Dialogue example: Owner: “My cat has really bad breath.” Cat: “You think I want to smell like the dog?”

5)    Questions

Why we use it: It’s human nature - when we see a question, our minds will engage and try to find an answer. Questions help bring your audience with you.

How we’ve used it: By sprinkling questions in your headlines or section breaks, the audience engages with the presentation. For example, rather than say “Consumers are choosing grape soda over orange soda,” present an image of a consumer at the aisle about to make a choice with the question: “Will she choose grape or orange soda?” 


Because we like to keep improving on a good thing, here are some BONUS storytelling techniques:

Fairytale structure: The narrative fairytale structure is so engrained in us that we intuitive know that stories that start out negative will end positive (e.g. any Disney movie) and vice versa (e.g. any horror movie). Start a report with a problem, and your reader will expect the promise of a positive solution. 

Hollywood framing: Just like movies, presentations and insights documentaries are visual – visually connect your first and last slides or frames like bookends. One of the best examples of this technique is from The Shawshank Redemption. The movie opens with a tight shot - Tim Robbins, alone, at night, in a cramped car reaching into a glove compartment for a wrapped gun. The final scene is the exact opposite - Tim Robbins on a wide-open beach on a sunny day in a boat greeting his best friend.


Next time you sit down to write a report, think about your audience, your Big Idea, and grab your storytelling tools.

How does your team define storytelling? What are some storytelling tools you’ve noticed in film, books, etc.? Connect with us on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.