You’ve likely heard the adage that you must hear or see something at least three times in order to lodge itself in your brain. Repetition prompts recall and remembrance. Quite often for me this plays itself out when I’m listening to music. I hear a mad beat with a catchy hook and I file it away in my mental download list but I’m not able to remember the lyrics, name of the band, or any distinguishing characteristics until I’ve heard it several times. Then suddenly, and without much effort, I’m blissfully singing along to the refrain.

Sometimes we’ve heard things and we’ve seen things but we might need to hear them or see them just one more time in order to truly internalize and commit it as our own personal truth. I recently attended The Market Research Event (TMRE) conference where this lesson was reinforced for me yet again. TMRE brings together a mix of insights industry professionals for several days of informative presentations, keynote talks, panel discussions, and networking. At these conferences, there tend to be a few big themes that dominate. This year, the topic playing over and over again for me, with a mad beat and a catchy hook, was storytelling.


Everyone, it seems, wants to unlock the mystery of not just how to find a compelling insight, but how to tell a good story to illuminate that insight in a way which compels action. Throughout the three days of my time at TMRE, many speakers shared their thoughts on the subject along with a few tips and tricks to improve one’s storytelling prowess. While many presenters drew from frameworks and ideas that I’ve seen and, in some cases, already practiced, the collective impression of all these conversations together really resonated in a different way. And, here’s the catchy hook that I came away with from it all: the data, the holy grail of our industry and the life blood of our work – is really quite inconsequential. Like a penetrating bass line at a 150 decibel rock concert, this one idea hit me dead center: “It’s NOT about the data, dummy.”

Before you close your laptop screen in horror at the blasphemy that I’m clearly spouting, let me offer some explanation as to why data doesn’t matter all that much.

Data represents the rational mind (the head) while story provides the emotional connection (the heart). And, it is the heart that inspires action.

TMRE was filled with speakers who recounted their challenges in landing their insights and gaining traction among their internal stakeholders. Charts and graphs and laying out the data of a business case for improvement or change simply did not take hold. For most, the key to success was engaging their teams in immersive story and interactive role playing. Tim Twichell from Decker Brands (parent company of Uggs and Sanuk) co-presented with Vital Findings on the barriers to their team and agency of adopting and using a large segmentation study. While the data underpinned the story, the data was not what led to adoption. Instead, what really resonated were team workshops and immersion that took the team out of the office and into the spaces and retailers where their consumer segments lived and shopped. They also created highly visual and stylized “look books” which brought each segment to life. It wasn’t the data (alone) that drove action for Decker Brands. It was connecting with their consumers, as people, via story and applying their own solution imagination.

We spend far too much energy focusing on the data. And this is often what gets in the way of the story.

The adage “can’t see the forest for the trees” applies here. Certainly, we require data to illuminate the insights we hope to identify but it is the insight, not the data, that should be taking center stage in our stories. Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic, keynote presenter and author of bestselling book Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals emphasizes the need to subsume and streamline data in our PowerPoint presentations in order for the story to come through. So often, as researchers, we want ALL of the data on the slide. Nussbaumer Knaflic urges us to resist the temptation to include everything and, instead, focus on the one or two key data points or important comparisons to make your point stronger.

For example, why show how your brand compares to all other competitors in quarterly customer satisfaction scores when the real story is how your brand has been steadily improving on key metrics with the exception of one critical area. The story is not about competitive comparison. The real story is about the ONE dissatisfier that needs urgent attention. Removing the superfluous and communicating with a laser focus allows the story to take hold and drive to the ‘now what.’ After all, we don’t share our insights to show how smart we are. We share our insights to improve the businesses and brands we support. Everything, Nussbaumer Knaflic, contends, should take you to action FASTER. And here is where the topic of storytelling intersects with the other big theme of TMRE: agility. The speed of business is not getting any slower. This became abundantly clear as many presenters spoke about the need for insights professionals to demonstrate agility to keep up with, and get in front of, the rapid pace of change and market dynamics.

Data without context and meaning is, at best, useless and, at worst, misleading.

We need to avoid taking data at face value and interrogating our data sources as well as our modes of collecting, coding, and analyzing our data. In his keynote address, best selling author Malcolm Gladwell, challenged all of us to question our data more carefully. And, by this, he was not referring to quality control checks on our data tables or scrubbing our consumer lists. He called for context surrounding the data we share.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

One example he used to illustrate the need for data scrutiny was his study of US News and its ranking of best colleges and universities. Gladwell unpacked the different metrics used to aggregate the best colleges, many of which center around how much money they have and spend. Then he pointed to the ‘who’ is doing the rating which, turns out to be, the different presidents of these colleges. This scrutiny led to questions surrounding the validity of the ‘best colleges’ list as well as what the list was actually telling us about our values as a society. What matters is not the data in isolation, what matters is data as a part of the bigger picture and context that brings additional layers of meaning and nuance. What matters is the story behind the data.

Conclusion: It’s Not JUST About the Data

So, what did I learn at this year’s TMRE? Playing on repeat was the chorus that our data should support the story and not the other way around. Story is the start of tribal knowledge. A week after you give a presentation, people will be hard pressed to remember a specific data point, conversion rate, volume number, or purchase interest score. But, they will remember a story and share it with others. A good story has the capacity to go viral. So, stop obsessing on the data and giving over all your share of mind AND share of slide to the data. Instead, give the data its proper supporting role in the cast and allow the story, and recommended action for the business, to be the true hero.

I will close with this, in a keynote panel discussion among the heads of consumer insights at companies such as Twitter, Nest, 20th Century Fox, and Facebook, one of the important, if not THE MOST important, skill sought after among insights professionals today is the ability to craft and tell a story to drive action. This was called out as among the top most critical skills to command influence in the C-suite. So, the challenge for all of us is to up our storytelling game and not let the data get in the way.

What is your ONE storytelling tool or tip that inspires action? What storytelling lessons have you learned in your journey?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments here. And for more thoughts and ideas on storytelling, context, and engaging your teams, subscribe to our blog and follow us on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.