FEATURE1 January 2012

Who are you talking to?

Talking to an uninterested audience is like addressing an empty room. Either way, no one’s listening. Richard Young hears from researchers who are learning the languages ot other disciplines to make their insights heard.


Thank you, Angela Garber. It was she who coined the term “death by PowerPoint” in an article for SmallBusinessComputing.com in 2001. What a shame, then, that more than a decade later the phrase is still in common use.

And what a shame that market research debriefs are an all too common scene of that particular crime. It’s not the only discipline prone to overwhelming an audience with data (and endless slides positioning the presenter’s business, and countless build effects, and interminable clarifications). But as a marketing service, really, the industry should know better.

It’s all to easy to forget that it’s actually a good thing to steal communication tricks from other disciplines. That’s why we’ve asked five research professionals who are applying lessons from others modes of high-impact communication to explain how market research can benefit.

Roger Banks
MD, Incite

“A Financial Times reader wants different things from a Sun reader. The MR industry sometimes feels like it has one mode, irrespective of the audience”

Talk like a journalist

We like to work with journalists to develop communication skills. We apply the classic journalistic technique of the story pyramid – you seize the reader’s attention at the outset, then explain how you arrived at your conclusions.

The governing thought is the key – and then at each step down the pyramid you add supporting evidence.

It’s not about disconnecting the analysis and interpretation of research from its communication. The industry is full of bright people – we just need to train them to communicate better.

We asked buyers to rank different marketing services businesses in terms of how much impact their comms have in their organisation. MR did really poorly. Management consultancies and ad agencies were much better at it.

Like journalists, management consultants don’t have this fear of being assertive in their recommendations. They look more widely and triangulate their findings with other information about the company. It means they’re much more familiar with the language of the client and they don’t use their data to recommend things that are completely illogical.

The other journalistic technique is to think about the story you’re telling and tailor it for the audience. A Financial Times reader wants different things from a Sun reader. The MR industry sometimes feels like it has one mode, irrespective of the audience – which is no good.

Danny Russell
Marketing strategy director, BSkyB

“I’d really encourage people to make the move from percentages to pound signs and see how it goes. it’s the language senior decision-makers speak”

Talk like a CFO

At Sky there’s a heavy proportion of people in senior positions with finance as their native language. That places some tough expectations on research delivery. Simply put, we expect to be able to use it to make better decisions – and every decision has a financial impact.

We tend to get heavyweight decision-makers in the debrief. That adds a lot of stress, but then we’re not playing games. You know your work will be used, and you’ll be asked some fairly juicy questions to stand it up.

Co-ordination between the agency and the research team is critical – I won’t have my team blame an agency if things don’t come together.

We define ‘insight’ as contextualised information that changes behaviour. If it doesn’t change our or our consumers’ behaviour we shouldn’t be doing it. At the debrief, that should be the mindset. If they can’t get out of the detail to present big picture stuff, it’s not going to work.

Those guys would rather have good, informed guesses that mean something in a context. We’ve never had a senior exec beating up an agency for having a guess to arrive at a recommendation.

I’d really encourage people to make the move from percentages to pound signs and see how it goes. People know you’re not accounting professionals – they’ll give you leeway. But if you think in terms of break-even, profit and loss, acquisition rates, sell-through, churn – it’s the language senior decision-makers speak.

Nick Johnson
MD, Volante Research

“The people who sign off on the big decisions are rarely in a debrief, so you have to work with the client to decide how you’ll reach those people”

Talk like an entrepreneur

Research has a reputation for not being actionable. Clients hand over £100,000 and six weeks later the agency is in the debrief sitting on the fence. There’s not enough effort to reveal what clients could do with the information.

Clients share some of the blame – they can keep research at arm’s length. But there’s no shortage of information in this day and age and it pays to do your due diligence. What are people saying about the company? What are their financials like? What’s happening in their sector? An entrepreneur is always looking for angles.

Entrepreneurs are also focused on pitching to decision-makers. But the people who sign off on the big decisions are rarely in a debrief, so you have to think like an upstart business and work with the client to decide how, together, you’ll reach those people. For example, a mini-version of the presentation – an elevator pitch – which can be passed on to the PA of the CEO.

Here, we tend not to do conclusions or even recommendations – we do ‘what would we do if we were you?’ That’s the kind of conversation any entrepreneur wants.

Alan Sugar, say, famously doesn’t have a lot of time for people who waffle. You have to go into these things assuming you’re presenting to someone like him – with a short attention span.

Graeme Lawrence
Marketing director, Join the Dots

“Mr Punch was the client and judy was the agency that was being pressured to do unethical things. Esomar, of course, was the policeman”

Talk like an entertainer

People have been banging on about infotainment for years, but as an industry we often get dragged back to the comfort zone. Still, you only have to look at the conference circuit to see how presentations bordering on infotainment are getting more common.

The Punch and Judy show we did at Esomar Congress is a great example. We were involved in work on important but fairly dry social media guidelines. We were wondering how to move it beyond a list of ‘thou shalt nots’ – and our founder Pete Comley had the idea of Punch and Judy.

We bought a booth and puppets and wrote a script using the social media guidelines as a base. Mr Punch was the clientside researcher and Judy was the agency being pressured to do unethical things. Esomar, of course, was the policeman. We created a beach scene, got the audience to crowd round and handed out sticks of rock.
Everyone was talking about it afterwards and the 50 copies of the guidelines we brought along all went. So it was worth driving from Manchester to Amsterdam with the booth in the back of a van. I just don’t think a standard presentation would have engaged people in the same way.

Obviously you can’t embark on this kind of approach lightly – it could have fallen flat. But then, any debrief presentation requires a lot of work. And anything that helps people get away from PowerPoint has got to be a good thing.

Jo Lowndes
Associate partner, Sparkler

“You don’t stand out by being safe, so stretch the client’s corporate guidelines and try new things. it can be scary but that’s what makes it interesting”

Talk like an advertiser

Sparkler was set up by two people from an ad agency background, so marcomms approaches to presenting findings were always in mind.

We’d done a lot of work for Nokia along those lines. Then we started on the Gameplanner site, a marketing-focused planning tool based around a Nokia strategy for understanding consumers. For us, it was about placing insights into a context to ‘sell’ the findings, so we built a campaign around them.

First it’s about getting attention. That’s obvious in a consumer ad campaign, and it’s the same in big organisations. We used techniques like postcards being distributed around the business explaining why it was important.

Then make it relevant for the audience. We researched the users of the insights to understand their challenges and goals. If you can find a common goal – like increasing the number of users, or return visits to the service – you can pitch something like Gameplanner more effectively.

Third, be memorable. We developed a professor character to be the face of the campaign and made some short animated videos featuring him.

I was surprised how simplistic all this sounded when we were putting the principles together – after all, they’re well understood in marketing and advertising. But they map really nicely on to insight messages.

You don’t stand out by being safe, so stretch the client’s corporate guidelines and try new things. It can be scary for the client, but that’s what makes it interesting.

Six tips for communicating research

1. Don’t be a scientist
Methodology and data need to be sound but they don’t need to be discussed – especially not with senior decision-makers.

2. Edit furiously
When you’ve done loads of work, have masses of data and taken the client’s money, the temptation is to show as much as you can to justify the fee. But 160-slide PowerPoint decks bury messages. Do 30 instead – and keep the rest for reference.

3. Put the debrief in a context
Learn as much as possible about the client and their situation. And work hard to define the brief as much as possible. Use that information to interpret your insights.

4. Be assertive
With the right context you ought to be able to make recommendations, not just deliver results. Your efforts might be knocked back, but rarely will they not be appreciated.

5. Tailor your messages
There’s a world of difference between a debrief for a research team and for their CEO. And even then, no two research teams have the same priorities.

6. Rehearse, tweak, rehearse
Bold, attention-grabbing presentations of direct assertions can be risky if they’re not slick, confident and accurate. Pare down the detail, then get the pitch just right.


13 years ago

Really interesting piece - and pertinent, too. It gives a different side to the discussion of " 'story' vs 'research' "; what's clear is that there isn't an easy answer. We want to show the validity of the research and stick to what we know, but portray it in a way that engages and captivates. Every time I present research it's the same old battle!

Like Report

13 years ago

Great article. I'd add that powerpoint per se isn't the problem, it's how it's used. Another tip - be authentic when presenting, play to your own style and strength - so if you're not an entrepreneurial type, fine, but work out how you'r projecting, what your mood music is, and use it.

Like Report

13 years ago

Really enjoyed this article. I recently sat through an 80 slide presentation that had been 'cut back'. In my view, any research presentation should be an hour max - 45 min slides and 15 min questions.

Like Report