The power of a well-crafted image and a great story

nathan laneIn this age of big data, the need to communicate complex information quickly, persuasively and accurately is greater than ever. As I discussed in a column for Wired, the days when insights professionals, particularly market researchers, could send their best clients a pile of data tables and a few pages of bullet points are long gone. 

To strengthen their storytelling skills, market research agencies are experimenting with different approaches. Some are even hiring creative writers, artists or actors to train their teams to cull and communicate engaging stories from data. These agencies don’t necessarily have to look far to find people with such non-traditional skills either – they can be right under their noses. For instance, actors Kathy Bates and Nathan Lane (pictured) both worked as telephone interviewers for a market research agency early in their respective careers, when plumb roles were hard to come by.

It was not a great experience for Lane. As he told the New York Times:

I’d dial some number in the Midwest, and the Joad family would answer. There’d be a dog yapping in the background. ‘Pa’s out in the field, we’ll go get him.’ I’d go, ‘No, no!’ But it was too late. I’d hear a screen door slam, and then I’d have to sit there, for hours, while they ran out into the field, and finally I’d hear the sound of these galoshes in the mud, the screen door open and this farmer come on the line. I’d tell him what I was doing and he’d say, ‘I’m gonna get on my tractor, and I’m gonna drive to New York, and I’m gonna kill you.’

Despite Lane’s obvious penchant for storytelling, his employer never asked him to work with its researchers to improve their ability to tell stories. A mistake? Possibly. But in practice, good storytelling can harm as well as entertain. A false relationship presented persuasively by a great storyteller often leads to a decision, but not necessarily the right one. More generally, no matter how much agencies or individual researchers improve their storytelling abilities, storytelling alone can’t replace the experience required to make important decisions.

In 1974, for example, British Prime Minister Edward Heath (who achieved a form of immortality because of the background vocal “Ha ha, Mr. Heath” in the Beatles song “Taxman”) asked his inner circle, including his polling director Humphrey Taylor, whether it made sense to call an election during the first few days of the national coal miner’s strike – the second such strike in two years. According to Taylor, “Our survey data offered little to no insight or direction concerning this matter. But historical precedent and experience suggested that antipathy for the government would increase during the course of the strike, which would not bode well for the Conservative party. We therefore advised the prime minister to call an election immediately, if he were to call one at all.”

The Prime Minister believed otherwise, however, and elected to wait several weeks. And ultimately, perhaps for this reason, his party lost the election.  Would Heath have made a different decision had a Nathan-Lane-trained researcher told a more compelling story? “Not a chance,” according to Taylor. Even great storytelling has limits.

In other cases, though, the story can make all the difference, especially with the aid of great visual information. Images combined with words can be more powerful and convincing than words alone. For instance, Justin Choi, president and CEO of Nativo, credits an infographic that showed how much new content is being created – “from the hours of new video content uploaded to YouTube every minute to the hundreds of thousands of new blog posts published every single day,” he said – with inspiring Nativo’s product messaging, which centers on driving content discovery for brands.

Choi said the infographic enhanced the narrative that helped Nativo “to raise additional funding and expand [their] team.”

But comparing the art we see today to that of the 1960s, when hand-drawn images ruled the day, suggests we may have lost something. A software package with standard graphical reporting templates can’t replace the artist who draws a lovely image by hand. Perhaps for this reason, at Forrester’s Forum for Marketing Leaders in April, analyst Nate Elliott argued that for those who want to reach perpetually connected customers, “The first piece of that is to build marketing art into your radar.”

Sometimes it all comes together: A highly skilled researcher distills massive amounts of data into an image or two, while also highlighting microbursts of critical information. She then uses those images as a basis for the compelling story she tells. A brand, or even a prime minister, while listening to the story, experiences that “ah ha” moment – the moment of epiphany, when the light bulb comes on. A decision is made that may change the course of history.

That kind of influence is increasingly earning insights professionals a seat at the tables where the big decisions are made. Hollywood directors have long understood the power of a well-crafted image and a great story. Business executives are starting to appreciate it, too.

George Terhanian is Group Chief Strategy & Products Officer at Toluna.