OPINION14 January 2013

No easy answers


Thinktank’s Andrew Cooper follows up our data visualisation special with a call for agencies to spend more time thinking about their outputs. He warns that simplification isn’t always the best approach.

In the beginning there was immediate informal verbal playback and a long and detailed report. Then came the formal presentation, first delivered on acetate and then PowerPoint. Now we are left with their bastard offspring; the qualitative research debrief.

“We shouldn’t be scared of making clients grapple with complexity if that’s what’s required. I recognise that one of the things we’re paid to do is unpick complexity, but we should never put ‘style’ over substance”

Neither one thing nor the other, the debrief is meant to be both presented and to live on as a standalone account of the research that’s been conducted. As such it often does neither job particularly well. All too often the presentation becomes a slog and the deck an unopened relic on the client’s server, rather than it serve as the piece of inspiration our labours should produce.

This is not a new problem. It is one qualitative agencies have been wrestling with for some time. “We need to be more visual”, we say. “No more than 25 slides to a debrief. No more than five words on a slide.” These are all sound principles that may make a debrief stand out, but none on their own is the answer – neither is any a substitute for all of us stepping back and thinking about the bigger question, which is:

“What do we want our debrief to do?”

For me, a successful debrief is one that lands the points we want to make in the right places within the client organisation. Clients should be left feeling that they understand their customers more, that they feel like they know what to do to move forward. But we do ourselves a disservice by setting rules that dictate how we deliver an effective debrief.

Research findings can be complex. Qualitative research in particular can often be about digging into knotty issues and understanding how a plethora of different elements come together. Sometimes 25 slides is right to get the point across. Sometimes a video does the job. On occasions, a 75-slide deck is what’s required, whereas at other times you don’t need a deck at all, just one memorable visual or a sentence for the planner to pin above their desk. We shouldn’t be a slave to any method or dismiss any approach outright.

More importantly, we shouldn’t be scared of making clients grapple with complexity if that’s what’s required. I recognise that one of the things we’re paid to do is unpick complexity, but we should never put ‘style’ over substance.

And yet it’s equally true that clients aren’t paying by the slide or by the word. I fear we sometimes take comfort in the heft of a deck. Perhaps we should move away from automatically booking as long as two hours for the debrief before we have any idea what it’s going to contain.

Ultimately, it’s about striking a balance that ensures debriefs are fit for purpose and fit for the audience. There should be some sizzle to help us engage the audience and maintain attention levels, but not at the expense of the sausage.

Achieving this balance requires time, however. Thinking time. Debrief writing should never feel like filling in a form. Maybe we should think more about the outputs when we first respond to a brief. Perhaps we could even talk about it in the proposal and make it a point of difference.

We take the time to explain why a sample we’ve devised will unearth insights no other agency could hope to achieve. Surely clients would be interested to hear how we’ll make sure those insights reach the right audience.

Andrew Cooper is a partner at Thinktank


8 years ago

I totally agree that good research communication is not always about simplicity and that sometimes it is important not to lose complexity. But, complexity is only a benefit if it supports a strong story. There is overwhelming evidence that people cannot retain or engage with a lot of information in one go. Researchers must ladder up to a big story, and then use evidence, which can indeed be complex, to support it.

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8 years ago

Great article Andrew. If there was one sweeping approach to communication we'd either all be millionnaires or out of a job (I haven't decided which). Being able to tailor the communication style back to your client does depend on the project in hand, and ofcourse expectations and is perhaps an advantage of being a more agile agency that you can offer a range of delivery options. The commissioning insight team will no doubt welcome any options you can give to the delivery and thinking about the how you might communicate the outcomes of a project may well influence your team along the process.

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7 years ago

Just because a subject is ‘knotty’ and complex is not an excuse for agencies to produce complex output (the worst clocking in at hundreds of dry, text-heavy slides) and then hide behind the argument that “Hey, this is a complex subject!”. In fact, bringing clarity and simplicity to a subject is much harder than just playing back its complexity (it’s also more rewarding). If two researchers are asked to explain attitudes to property insurance in Latin America (a complex subject!), the one who distills the story into a dozen tight, well-argued slides is doing a better job than the one who produces a deck of a hundred slides and makes a virtue of the subject’s complexity (and whose deck needs to be re-read on a Sunday night, with red Sharpie in hand). The task of the researcher is to clarify and distill from that complexity - to help clients make decisions. That’s what they pay you to do. The use of visuals is precisely to help address the complexity of a subject and to bring clarity to it. Visuals aren’t there to tickle clients for the fun of it (and I have yet to meet a client who was content to have a question left unanswered, provided the icons looked cute). Language also helps to clarify. Clients appreciate clear, memorable writing, not academic speak or business cliché (I had thought we’d heard the last of seventies Adland’s ‘sausage / sizzle’ motif, but I see you’re still using it). Clients today are calling for distilled, well-designed output which they can confidently share with their own internal clients, without the need for rewriting, hair-pulling or blank expressions in presentations. Researchers should answer the call for clarity and simplicity, not hide behind ‘complexity’. Complex subjects should not mean complex output.

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