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Research Tip: Tell a Story

I’m sure we’ve all seen the “report” that amounted to little more than a data dump. Usually, they devote one page to each question and every page follows the format of bar chart and two bullet points telling you what is obvious from looking at the chart. Also, the bullets are often written as if the intent was to be as obtuse as possible.

These reports often look something like this:

don't do this

In a world where you need to constantly demonstrate the value you bring to the business, reports like this earn you negative points. An improved version of the same slide might look something like this:

Do this

Making individual slides more readable and information (rather than data) packed is a big improvement. But don’t stop there.

I suggest you use the following approach when developing your next research report:

  • Find the story in the data. What is the one huge overarching result of the research.
  • Identify three to five key findings that add up to the huge overarching result
  • Organize the flow of the report around the three to five key findings

Using this approach, the basic outline of your report would look like this:

  • Introduction: Tell them the huge result and the 3 to 5 supporting findings.
  • Finding #1: Explain the finding and provide supporting evidence from the data. Then explain why that finding is important for the business.
  • Finding #2: Same as #1
  • Finding #3: Same as #1
  • Wrap up: Re-iterate the huge overall result and the key findings and explain what that means for the business.

That’s quite a bit better than: Question 1, Question 2, Question 3, Question 4, and on (and on and on and on) until you reach the end of the survey. Telling a story keeps the readers (or listeners) engaged and positions you as a valuable member of the team instead of a talking spreadsheet.

Front-line employees are your brand

Many companies pour millions of dollars into advertising campaigns and brand identity projects, yet seem to forget that the way that the front-line staff interacts with the customer can undo years of marketing in an instant.

Managers need to take seriously the idea that a customer or prospect will form an opinion about your brand based on their experience interacting with the company much faster than they ever will from advertising.  And it will be much more strongly held.  Once this notion is accepted, hiring, training, and process decisions need to change to make sure the front-line staffers are up to the demands of the position.

I ‘m sure we all have customer service horror stories.  My point in writing this post isn’t to bash anyone or to vent over some perceived slight.  It is to point out the tremendous damage that can be done by just one careless, apathetic, or rude employee.

My experience with a major airline serves as an example of the long term financial cost of shabby treatment.  Through most of the 1990’s, I was working in consulting positons that required a fair amount of travel.  Like most business travelers, I was pretty loyal to a single airline for the miles.

I decided to use some of the miles I had accumulated to take a trip.  I got to the airport and found that I was assigned a center seat all the way in the back.  When I inquired with the gate agent about the possibility of getting a different seat, the response was “for what you paid for that ticket, you’re lucky to have any seat at all.”


What did I do?

I started flying another airline.  In the 8 or 9 years (and several hundred thousand miles) since that incident, I haven’t spent another dime to fly with that carrier.  I don’t plan to anytime soon, either.  Now I own a business and have staff that travels – but not on that airline.

It’s pretty easy to see how that incident cost the business well over a million dollars in the long run.

To be completely fair, there were plenty of other things to be unhappy about with that company’s service and that incident alone didn’t drive me away.  What it did do, though, was cause me to become much less forgiving of the other issues.

This happens every day in businesses large and small.

How much do you invest in the people who deal directly with the customer?  Do you even know what a customer’s real experience with your front line staff is?  Does your front-line staff have the skill and the authority to make the right decisions for your brand?

Presenters -Don’t let your delivery kill your content!

As I’ve been writing about in recent posts, I attended the American Marketing Association’s Executive Insights Conference recently. The last two posts focused on what, in my opinion, was some of the most interesting content. Now, I feel compelled to say a few words about the delivery of that content.

In my first post about the conference, I mentioned the great variance in session quality. I want to clarify that comment a little. I think that the vast majority of the content was good. The problem with many of the sessions was that otherwise good content got buried by not so good delivery.

An unfortunate common theme to all the presentations was slide after slide filled with unreadable 12pt text and charts with so much clutter that it was hard to tell what the point was. Of the sessions I attended (about 2/3 of them), I’d say the norm was poorly designed slides and easily-correctable public speaking mistakes getting in the way of otherwise good content.

I don’t think for a second that any of the presenters are incapable. This overuse of bullets and text-heavy slides is the sad norm in business presentations. And public speaking? Well, they say that most people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy. So it’s no surprise that good speaking skills are the exception.

My humble suggestion for conference organizers – either require or offer to make available to prospective speakers some form of presentation training.

There is no shortage of public speaking trainers out there who could put together a few hours of material to be delivered by webinar. Think of it not as a cost, but an investment in a higher quality experience for attendees, which usually means repeat business at future conferences.

Future speakers, two suggestions for making your delivery to amplify your content:

  • Join Toastmasters. This is probably one of the best things you could do for your career, regardless of whether you ever speak at a conference.
  • Buy, read, and use the ideas in Presentation Zen. This book is an excellent introduction for the non-designer to using presentation slides that reinforce and amplify your message instead of detract from it.
  • Don’t want to read a book? Then read the blog of the same name
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