Telling your research story - 5 questions you need to ask yourself

21 April 2022

In this article TLF Research Client Manager Stephen Hampshire shares his thoughts on storytelling in customer research.

The word “storytelling” may be the most abused buzzword in the research industry and, let me tell you, that is a competitive field.

I think that’s a real shame, because there is loads of potential to improve research communication. The problem is that people often focus on the surface features of storytelling rather than its structural heart.

That means storytelling comes to be thought of as using customer video to engage, or graphic designers to lift the quality of outputs. Those things are valuable, but only when they’re used for a reason, within a story structure that was crafted with care.

Otherwise what you end up with is something like a CGI-heavy summer blockbuster: it may look pretty on the surface, but it doesn’t really connect with its audience, and it doesn’t change anything.

Here’s my short guide to research storytelling with a purpose, outlining 5 questions you need to ask yourself.

Why Stories?

Research is important, but the findings, let’s face it, can be a little dry. Stories help to bring our research to life by engaging the emotions of our audience, but they do much more than that.

Stories make an argument about cause and effect. Their structure means that you need to be clear about what you want your audience to do, and why.

That’s why you need to learn to tell stories if you want your research to drive change. So the starting point is to be clear on what you want to happen…

Q1: What is the change, action. or decision that you want to happen?

Your hero.

Every story needs a hero, but who’s yours?

Sadly, it’s probably not you. Your role is to be the mentor (think Gandalf or Obi Wan Kenobi) who starts the hero on their journey.

Your hero is more likely to be the audience.

It’s whoever needs to make the change that you’re campaiging for, whether that’s a director making a purchasing decision, a manager changing a quality monitoring process, or frontline staff changing their behaviours.

Once you’ve identified your hero, you need to know what’s going to motivate them. What is it about the current situation that they should be unhappy with?

Q2: Who’s your hero?

  • A senior decision maker: You’ll need to make your business case, but don’t forget to target their emotions too!

  • Managerial: Managers can be tricky, make sure you show that your research gives them a tool they can use to motivate and manage their people.

  • Frontline staff: Customer-facing staff need to know 2 things: what and why. What is it they need to do, and why does it matter to customers.

  • A mixture: It’s difficult to tell you story to more than one audience at a time, so try to make sure that at least part of your narrative has a specific message for each part of the audience.

  • Someone else: Whoever it is, you’ll need to find something that they’re unhappy about with the status quo.

Shaping your story

A good story needs three things:

  1. A hook, to get attention

  2. A picture of the future, to persuade your audience to change

  3. A mission, so your audience is clear about how to make it happen


Just like an advertiser, your first job is to get attention. Tools like video of customers are better than statistics, but best of all is to show that you will address a problem for your hero/audience (that’s why I asked you to define that first).

“You have a problem, let me show you how I can help” is the best hook of all.

A picture of the future

Nancy Duarte, in her excellent book Resonate, talks about painting a picture of “what could be” versus “what is”. Pick up on what makes your hero uncomfortable with the status quo, and present data and comments that evidence how things could be better. You need to persuade them that change is possible and worth the effort.

Paint as vivid a picture of this promised land as you can.


Give your audience a clear call to action that will get them from “what is” to “what could be”. This should be specific, and grounded in their day to day reality.

Q3: Painting a compelling picture of “what could be” is a key skill of leaders as well as storytellers (not a coincidence). Are you clear on what it looks like?

If so, you need to make sure you get that across to your audience. Research can give you facts & figures, but also stories from individual customers. Make sure you use them both, and be ruthless in pruning out anything that doesn’t add to the story.

If not, you need to persuade yourself before you start trying to persuade others. It’s really important that you believe in your story, so start by making sure that you can articulate to yourself why this change is necessary.

The reward.

Probably the most important part of your story is that you clearly articulate the reward that awaits the hero when they come back from their quest.

Don’t let the word “reward” fool you, it’s very rarely about money. Here are some good ways to articulate a motivating reward:

Address a need

What’s the biggest headache for your audience? Find a way to tie your research to that.

Articulate these links in a punchy way, by making them concrete and describing a possible future. Don’t say “the correlation between satisfaction & call volumes is 0.4”, say “if we increase satisfaction by 5 points we’ll have 2,000 fewer calls per month”.

Combine rational & emotional

Make your case with facts and proof, but remember to make an emotional argument as well. This helps with both persuasion and memory. Customer comments are key for this.

Paint a picture

Make it visual, if you can. Again, this helps with memory.

Think like an advertiser

You’re trying to “sell” your idea to the audience. To do that you need to combine (and align) messages that are verbal and visual, rational and emotional, conscious and unconscious.

You also need to be able to boil it down to a sentence.

Q4: In a sentence, what’s your story? To be persuasive, think in terms of “If you [DO X] then [Y WILL HAPPEN] because [ARGUMENT].”

Making it stick

By now you should have crafted a compelling story, showing the audience how they can address a need they recognise by making the change you’re calling for.

That means they’ll leave the room keen to take action, but what often happens is that, bit by bit, the status quo reasserts itself.

To prevent that, we need to make sure our story sticks in their minds. Here are some good tricks to make your message stick:

The “gleaming detail”

Bobette Buster, in her book Do Story, talks about the importance of finding the “gleaming detail” in your story. This is the emotional core of the story, and the thing which pins it in your mind. Think of the little girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List.

A visual metaphor

If you can find a way to encapsulate your point as a visual metaphor, that’s a very good way to make it concrete and memorable. “Customers don’t want quarter-inch drills, they want quarter-inch holes” is a good example of this.

A memorable phrase

A memorable phrase is nearly as good. Spend the time to polish your headline, perhaps using rhythm and rhyme, to find a sticky cadence.

Q5: What’s your “gleaming detail”?

Do you feel confident telling your research story? If you can answer these 5 questions, you should be.

“Storytelling” techniques, like video and graphic design, are tools that you can use to enhance your story, to make it more engaging and more memorable, but the heart of storytelling is communicating and important change that your audience cares about and is willing to work towards.

Go change the world.