OPINION2 April 2024

The industry has much to learn from others when it comes to storytelling

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Accessing different perspectives is key to fostering curiosity and communicating well, says Grant Feller.

Graphic of two interlinking speech bubbles and shapes overlaid, suggesting dialogue, good communication

Learn a new skill or face obsolescence is Ryan Roslansky’s dire warning. According to the company of which he’s chief executive, LinkedIn, there are more than 120,000 research and insight companies employing around six million people across the world.

That data might be open to debate but Roslansky’s observation about the workplace impact of artificial intelligence is spot-on: ‘Jobs are changing on you, even if you’re not changing jobs. And while that’s been true for some time – with the average LinkedIn member having seen the skills needed for their job change by 25% over the past eight years – AI is going to meaningfully accelerate that pace of change. By our latest estimates, that number is expected to reach at least 65% by 2030.'

In a race to future-proof our careers, it feels like we’re being outpaced by technology. Yet each of us has a secret weapon, a talent that, as yet, no version of ChatGPT possesses. And it’s key to reinventing this industry and our place within it. 


One of our most valuable talents has, ironically, been dulled by decades of systemic thinking in which corporations have prioritised methodologies over our innate ability to ask: ‘What else? So what?’ and myriad other questions. In particular, learning from outsiders to more fully serve our stakeholders’ constantly changing needs.

I say ‘we’ but really I mean ‘you’. Because I’m one of those outsiders who, through serendipity, has been welcomed into an industry I knew little about a decade ago.

I’ve repackaged newsroom learnings from almost 30 years as a print, digital and broadcast journalist for a market research industry that, in effect, does a similar storytelling job – amassing large and complex sets of facts and then delivering it so that people can make decisions. However – and apologies for this truth-bomb – when it comes to finding, making and telling stories, the insights industry has much to learn from journalism.

The agencies and brands who value journalistic storytelling are those that place a premium on curiosity, courageously questioning tried and trusted approaches and challenging themselves to embrace the wisdom of outsiders. Cognitive diversity, they surmise, will help them to become innovative disruptors and provide that competitive edge when it comes to communications.

It’s one of the themes at this year’s MRS Storytelling Conference, of which I’m chair. How the industry can tell better stories by fostering a culture of learning, focused on some of the world’s most creative industries? Among those speaking will be social media influencers, Bafta-winning producers, chief executive veterans of the publishing, PR and advertising industries, and digital newsmakers.

Based on my own experience, cognitively diverse curiosity has three broad impacts:

1.) Inside-out

With access to different perspectives, teams start to self-evaluate and provoke as an outsider would. When you’re focused on the process of work, it’s difficult to spot weaknesses and solutions. However, learning something new compels you to look for fresh answers.

In his book, Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed asks why so many immigrants are successful business leaders. His ‘outsider mindset’ thesis is that because they’re exposed to different cultures, they instinctively think in different ways and are more able to generate piercing new insights. Having a diverse skillset is similarly rewarding – applying learnings from other experiences means you don’t take things for granted.

2.) Outside-in

Hiring in outsiders with specialised approaches can inspire more immediate breakthroughs. They typically innovate by acting on insights and experiences that are new to the context they enter but familiar to the context they come from.

With one foot in both arenas, they become truly innovative because they’re also involved in a perpetual learning process. And if they’re still practising their skills within that ‘outside’ environment, their legitimacy is strengthened.

3.) Upside-all

Cognitive diversity doesn’t just provide confidence and a new way of expressing ideas. It also inspires a more diverse work culture. Though companies spend heavily on learning and development, much of it is focused on systems or product knowledge and relatively little on skills. It’s as if ‘soft skills’ development is down to you and so, by shutting down opportunities for advancement, the glass ceiling becomes even more unbreakable.

The industry is rightly enamoured by the extraordinary potential of technology yet sometimes neglects to empower human potential. Encouraging us to be more curious about the way other industries engage with audiences helps us to make even greater sense of brands, consumers and the world of work.

The more perspectives we have, the more potent our ideas and the more useful we become. The more similar we are, the easier it is to agree and the more difficult it is to spot flawed assumptions.

Perhaps the industry has been a little too comfortable for too long, unwilling to challenge itself by listening to other voices. If you hire exclusively from people whose careers have been spent in your sector, they are already a by-product of the environment. If, instead, you look at people who’ve got different backgrounds and experiences, you’ll build a far more interesting team. If AI has shown us anything it’s that we must adapt and develop skills to stay competitive and agile.

All of which will help the research industry focus on the most important story of all: itself. If outsiders help to craft an even better story, we – you – will become even more influential within organisations, among leaders and in your own career.

Grant Feller is founder of EveryRung