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June 9, 2022
Using narrative storytelling structure can help your audience engage with your report the same way they’d engage with their favorite movie.
Danielle Hope Diamond
Have you ever given a presentation or distributed a report, and then 3 days later had a stakeholder come to you, asking about research questions you just explained?
Recently, I conducted interviews with practicing UX researchers to get a sense of their biggest pain-points when dealing with stakeholders and deliverables, and my conversations revealed a common problem amongst them.
The pattern was that these researchers have found it difficult to get their stakeholders to pay attention to and retain the bulk of the information in their reports and presentations. Many of them expressed that they’ve switched over to live presentations over written reports to communicate their findings, because they’re interactive and more engaging. It’s also a much better way to make sure they’re receiving the information, since there’s virtually no way to hold every stakeholder accountable for reading a written report.
While these researchers reported that this change has been helping them better engage their stakeholders, they still noted that the problem isn’t fully solved. Researchers continue to grapple with how they can make their information stick with their audience.
If you’re one of the many researchers that have come across this problem, there is a craft that can completely transform the way you present and communicate information: storytelling.
Stories and anecdotes are essential to how we make sense of our world and share that understanding with others. This is why we do things like watch movies and read books. It's also why marketers, lawyers, journalists, and, well, anyone who communicates ideas for a living, study storytelling.
So it should be no surprise that storytelling is critical to any good research findings presentation as well.
As a UX researcher, the purpose of your deliverables, be it a written report or a live presentation, is to communicate thoughts and ideas—and they can also help demonstrate the overall impact of your research. Sometimes a standard report in common industry format (CIF) will do, but other times, you're going to have to leverage the power of storytelling to communicate your findings to team-members and stakeholders, and help them better understand how to best serve your user.
If you’re having a hard time getting stakeholders to hear what you’re trying to tell them about the value and insights from your research, that’s a good indication it’s time to try adding in some storytelling.
So, what is the art of storytelling and how can you use it for your next report or presentation?
“Stories fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living—not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”
- Robert McKee
Robert McKee, the world’s most well known screenwriting and storytelling expert, put it best when he explained how stories help us grasp patterns and concepts not just intellectually, but emotionally. People remember feelings above all else. So if you can make your audience feel something about your information and data, they will likely remember it.
Fortunately, storytelling isn’t solely the domain of filmmakers and novelists. The popular notion that creative genius is a magical burst of inspiration and not something that can be learned is nothing more than a myth. Creatives work and rework their writing and practice their craft daily to tell impactful stories. (Don’t believe me? Allen Gannett just wrote a whole book on this called The Creative Curve.)
But you don’t have to practice storytelling every day to nail the basics. In fact, there’s a formula you can follow to tell a compelling story, that will get people to listen and care about what you have to say. Here’s how you can use that formula to present your research to stakeholders.
The secret to storytelling is following a narrative structure.
Narrative structure is all about story and plot. And what do Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Ladybird all have in common? (Besides the fact that they’re my favorite movies!) They all follow a standard narrative story structure.
It’s the same structure that Robert McKee writes about in what’s known as the screenwriting bible, Story: The Principles of Screenwriting, and Joseph Campbell analyzes in his famous guide to storytelling, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. You can also find these elements in Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest known analysis of drama theory.
“Structure is a selection of events from the characters’ life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotion and to express a specific view of life.”
- Robert McKee
In other words, a lot of really smart, famous people have studied this and they’ve all come to some of the same basic conclusions about how to tell a successful story.
The storytelling structure that screenwriters use is pretty extensive, but there’s a simple, five-step version, initially designed by Andy Raskin, that’s meant for business and marketing purposes. Since a research presentation is different than a pitch deck, I decided it was time to design a version specifically for UX researchers. Here’s how you can apply the basics of narrative storytelling structure to give your report or presentation the compelling edge it needs for your information to stick with your stakeholders.
1. The Inciting Incident: Name a Big Change in the World, Relevant to Your Product Solution
The first step in standard storytelling structure is commonly referred to as “the inciting incident.” It’s an event, usually outside of the protagonist’s control, that changes the course of their life and thus the story.
As a researcher, your inciting incident is the change or observation that sparked your research question. Instead of jumping right in with your research questions, give your stakeholders the context and preceding observations that sparked your questions in the first place.
If this were Star Wars, this would be the scene where Luke hears R2-D2’s message for the first time. Although he doesn’t know it yet, this is his first conscious connection to The Empire and The Rebellion.
As the hero of this journey, you are Luke Skywalker, the protagonist taking action. But before you took action by asking your research questions, there was an observation or series of events that led you to that point.
2. The Hero Takes Action: Introduce Your Research Questions and Your Study
After introducing your “inciting incident,” it’s time to tell the tale of how you took action by presenting your stakeholders with your research questions.
In the context of Star Wars, this would be where Luke Skywalker decides to join Obi-Wan Kenobi and see what being a Jedi is all about.
Now that your stakeholders know what caused you to ask these questions and conduct this study in the first place, they’ll have a richer understanding of the why behind the research. Just like you care about the protagonist’s mission in your favorite movie, your stakeholders will care about your research questions and the study you designed to accomplish your mission.
After you introduce your research questions, you’ll likely want to give a little context around the study itself. This is often the place where researchers lose stakeholders’ attention. Fortunately, there’s a screenwriting principle that can help guide you through this problem.
In screenwriting, every scene and line of dialogue must be purposeful and push the story forward. You can ask yourself the same questions screenwriters do when deciding what belongs in the story, and what’s unnecessary “fat” that could be cut out.
Is it important that your audience knows this piece of information to understand the story? Does this piece of information push the story forward?
When you’re deciding what aspects about the design of the study are necessary to include in your presentation or report, the answer to these questions may be “no” for a lot of the nitty-gritty details. If it’s not essential for your unique stakeholders to know that piece of information, cut it out.
3. Tease the Promised Land (With Supporting Data)
After you’ve taken action, it’s time for the “second act” of your story. Screenwriters call it “teasing the promised land”.
In storytelling, the promised land is the hero’s end goal. In Star Wars, the end goal is blowing up the Death Star, but in your presentation, it will be the solution to the product problems in question. Whether your Luke Skywalker or a UX researcher, the end goal of the story is desirable and difficult to achieve. This means there’s a lot that happens before getting there.
In your research, you didn’t go right from the questions to the answers. There’s data and analysis that happens in between that helps you get to that point. Before you present the results, which is the big climactic moment, you have to show them the events that led up to the climax. If Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star 40 minutes into Star Wars, it probably wouldn’t be such an exciting movie.
It’s also important to present the information it in this order. If you start with your results and then get to the supporting data after the fact, you lose the build-up, and thus the impact.
Writing the second act is often the most difficult part of screenwriting, but in UX research, if you’ve collected and analyzed data of any kind, Act II is already written!
This is the section for any quantitative and qualitative data that was important in getting to your end goal. Again, ask yourself which information is absolutely critical for your stakeholders to know. Chances are you have a lot of data, but if you want to keep their attention, weed out anything that isn’t essential to understanding your results.
Since data is another section where stakeholders may start to tune out, there’s another screenwriting tip that can help make your information more digestible and engaging: Keep it concise and visual.
Some stakeholders like hard quantitative data, but others may be intimidated by numbers. After you’ve pared down your data to what’s necessary, find a way to present it in a visual way. Charts and graphs are a great way to help stakeholders visually make sense of numbers.
Your qualitative data should be visually engaging as well. Try using quotes from participants, or even videos, soundbites, and images from the actual interviews and studies. Real participant quotes and reactions are much more colorful and impactful than simply having a researcher describe a problem or general user opinions.
Lastly, try to balance your quantitative data and qualitative data. Different stakeholders may be biased towards one type of data over another, so make sure there’s something for everyone in your “Act II.” This will also keep your data diverse and engaging.
4. Results: Giving Your Stakeholders “Magic Gifts” to Overcome Their Product Obstacles
Before we get to your final solutions and deliverables, “the promised land,” you have to present your stakeholders with the tools to get there.
In the hero’s journey, there is often an experienced character who imparts wisdom or “magic gifts”, that push the story forward and ultimately gets the hero to their end goal. This is where Obi-Wan teaches Luke how to harness his feelings to use the force. Had this not happened, Luke wouldn’t have been able to destroy the Death Star at the end of the movie.
In some cases, these “magic gifts” are literal, such as Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, but the gifts of UX research will come in the form of conclusions and results that help inform product decisions.
This section is where you’ll explain the meaning of your data and present your definitive results that will ultimately determine the next, and final, part of your presentation: Your solutions.
5. Your Solutions: Making The Promised Land a Reality
You’ve explained the inciting incident that led to you taking action with your research questions and study. You’ve teased the promised land with the most crucial data, which led you to your big learnings and results. Hopefully, your stakeholders are actively listening and ready to hear the solutions that will tie up everything you just presented to them.
This part of the storytelling structure is that big exciting scene where Luke uses the force to make a perfect shot that destroys the Death Star; the climax of the story.
Now, you can finally make actionable recommendations to your stakeholders about what they have to do to make their product better based on your research findings. This is the part that most directly pertains to your stakeholders, because they are likely the ones who will be making these changes.
Whether it’s a list of recommendations, wireframe, or a prototype of how the updated product should function, this is the end goal of your presentation. If you’ve followed all five-steps of this basic storytelling structure, hopefully your solutions will have the impact they deserve.
At first glance, research questions, data, and product solutions may not seem as compelling as Star Wars. There may not be battle sequences or alien creatures in the narrative of your study, but your research is urgent and important to your business, and should be treated as such.
I’ve used this structure for presentations, pitch decks, and yes, screenplays—I went to film school, can you tell?—and I know first hand that telling a compelling story is all about understanding tried and true storytelling structure.
But just like any other craft, it’s something that takes practice to get right. Next time you have a presentation, give this a try! The more you practice presenting your research using the principles of story, the better you’ll get at it, and hopefully your stakeholders will soon retain all of the important findings you present to them on a regular basis.
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Danielle is a content marketer, writer, and proud former member of the User Interviews team! She's also a film, theatre, and music enthusiast.