FEATURE1 July 2010

Debriefed or deflated?

If the debrief is supposed to be a researcher’s crowning moment, how come it’s so often so painful? Jane Shirley shares some tips on how to break the mould.

? W e’ve all been there. The debrief that should be the agency’s chance to shine. The debrief that we have primed the client to expect big things of. The presentation that should be the client’s opportunity to learn something that will change their business, that has been long days (and sometimes nights) in the making. Then the big moment arrives and it all goes horribly wrong.

Debriefs are an essential tool that all agencies use to communicate in a few hours what has been an accumulation of months of work – brainstorms, conversations, insightful moments and data analysis all coming together. But no matter how long we have been doing these, there is always something that you would do better, change, wish you’d done. The researchers have the stage – and sometimes we get stage fright.

How come so often, for the audience, hell is other people’s debriefs? One presenter I saw began by saying: “The good news is that all of the potential concepts work well. I’m sure the creatives here will confirm this isn’t always the case with their work, in fact usually there are some awful ones.”

Cue the creative team preparing to tear the researcher limb from limb. Another presenter kicked off with: “OK we’ve got two hours for the presentation and I’ll try not to go too much over that.”

A quick email out to the team at Insight asking for presentation horror stories was met with an immediate response as we all tried to outdo each other with our anecdotes. These are the top nightmares, with names removed to prevent embarrassment.

  • A presentation in which 90 slides were covered in 60 minutes, an achievement that required the presenter to talk through each one so quickly that they were visibly out of breath by the end. It wasn’t healthy for the audience either, who were hit by a firehose of information.
  • After 10 minutes of a colleague presenting the first person walked out, followed gradually by each member of the audience. The presenter felt obliged to ask the last remaining person if he was enjoying it, only to discover that he didn’t speak English.
  • A presentation that was billed as including “lots of stimulating thoughts” but which actually included 50 slides of quotes – which the presenter read through word by word.
  • One debrief foundered when the client accidentally gave out conflicting information about the start time. As a result the presenter had a stream of people coming and going throughout the debrief. By the end he had a completely different audience to the one they had started with, rather like the lineup of the Sugababes.
  • Anyone who has worked on international projects knows that they bring special challenges. One of my team once had to give a multimedia presentation to a team that included no less than 17 people dialling in by phone (all with “strong accents”) and two more
    via videoconference.

So, how come it goes so wrong, so often? Why do we as insight providers turn what should be our crowning moment into a depressing letdown? Media people would label it our ‘OTS’ – opportunity to shine – but more often, these occasions bring less illumination than gloom.

Many of the examples above derived from logistical wire-crossings, so one basic recommendation is to check all the details – the room, attendees, start, duration, technology, stage, in advance. And then again. And then maybe just one last time.

With all that in place, we can concentrate on how to make the experience more memorable and compelling. Bringing someone in to look at your approach often helps. Try to apply the techniques of storytelling to add meaning, conversation and drama – three key ingredients for any engaging presentation.

So, here are my top tips for a more enlightening debrief for everyone involved. At Insight we happen to operate primarily in the world of healthcare, but I have seen nothing to suggest that these problems and their solutions are not universal.

1. Surprise
Do it differently and surprise the client. Researchers need to stop playing safe and make greater use of the raw outputs of the research – verbatim quotes from online forums, pictures, photo montages, video clips and so on. Why not try setting the meeting room up in a completely different way, such as a gallery where some of the outputs are placed around the room for the audience to take in at the start?

2. Engage
It’s simple, but needs to be on the list. Engage the client from the outset with something that encapsulates a core insight from the research – like decorating the room in a way that reflects the life of the core target segment, or displaying an image (the bigger the better) that captures exactly how they view the brand.

?”Minimise the use of PowerPoint (use it instead as a leave-behind) and make the debrief experiential with ethnographic footage, audio clips and a clear narrative. It can be done”

3. Don’t be PowerPoint-dependent
Minimise the use of PowerPoint (use it instead as a leave-behind) and make the debrief experiential with ethnographic footage, audio clips and a clear narrative. We recently won a best paper award at an industry conference for a presentation that relied solely on video footage interspersed with audio clips from key participants. It can be done.

4. Bring the outside in
Emphasise the experience as much as the content. On one occasion, we decided that, rather than merely relying on the charts and verbatims from our sample of GPs, we would bring a doctor into the debrief as an expert witness. Unconventional, yes, but also far more effective and memorable. In another case we were trying to go beyond the clinical definition of psychological conditions such as claustrophobia, to create a sense of what it actually felt like to suffer from them. We made the client sit nearer to us than they would have liked, and placed everything very close by so that they could experience firsthand the sort of cramped constraints felt by patients.

5. Create lasting memories 
Anecdotes and metaphors are far more memorable than pages and pages of facts. In a recent project, the management of a particular condition was likened to that of solving a Rubik’s cube (move one part and you have to constantly think about how that will affect the rest) – so we placed a Rubik’s cube in front of each member of the audience.

6. Audience participation
Think of the debrief as a show – don’t just invite questions, get the audience to do something active. Movement is a simple way of heightening energy, so physically move from one side of the room to the other – or better still get them to ‘reveal’ some of the findings – we’ve used envelopes that contain key brand associations and asked members of the audience to open the envelope and comment on the content. You can help avoid the ‘we knew that already’ response by getting the audience to outline at the start what they think the answer will be to a core element of the research.

7. Get creative with the numbers
We all know that dense data and poor insight is a common pitfall with quant presentations. So why not use dashboards to capture and convey the crucial elements of data in a format that encourages the audience to interact and play around with the data? It’s got to be better than wading through 100 slides.

We need to take presentations into our own hands and break the conventions. Frame a great story, think about the emotions you want to impress upon the audience and take them on a journey through it, with white knuckles or Rubik’s cubes. Surprise the audience to engage them at the time, and make it memorable so that it stays with them after the dust has settled.

If we keep this in mind, we can move closer to debrief heaven.

?Jane Shirley is joint group managing director of healthcare specialist Insight Research Group, alongside Nicola Cowland. She is also CEO of Cello Research Group. She has worked on the client and agencysides, including a spell at GlaxoSmithKline

1 Comment

14 years ago

Jane Shirley’s article highlights how wrong a business meeting can go if you do not employ the right strategies and tools to maintain your audience’s attention. I agree with Shirley when she recommends that we should refrain from being dependent on PowerPoint presentations. However, if they are used to their advantage, they are an extremely productive communication tool and make a real difference to getting your desired message across. It is important that everything that is included in a PowerPoint presentation is concise and relevant to your main argument. If you don't know where to start, consider getting outside help. A professional writer or presentation expert, such as www.article10.com, can often see things you can't and give a totally new perspective on your project. Kate

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