Reinventing traditional research: Embracing a new method to storytelling

 This post is sponsored by Kadence International.

A couple of months back, Kadence International’s MD Philip Steggals, at the Research & Insights 2018 conference, answered the question: “Is traditional research dead?”

In case you missed it, the resounding answer was a loud “no”. But what is dead is our traditional attitudes to research, and that we should be more open to reinventing traditional research to remain relevant and effective. A great example of this is how, at Kadence, we have evolved focus groups into “storytelling circles”.

What are storytelling circles?

In short, it’s a redesigned process where the focus is on the respondents to tell stories that illustrate how they feel about the topic at hand. It strips away all the accoutrements that have been piled on traditional focus groups over the years in the attempt to solicit better answers/responses of the participants. Storytelling, then, is all about going “back to basics”.

Why does it work? Because storytelling comes naturally to us. As Roger C. Shank, the renowned cognitive scientist, puts it: “Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”

Stories are the way we interact and make sense of the world – they are a fundamental instrument of thought. And so it follows, they are the greatest way to draw out deeper held beliefs, values and experiences from respondents.

We were read stories when we were kids, taught how to construct them as students in school and, as adults, use stories in our daily lives to connect with other kindred spirits, seeking to affect an emotional bond with people we like (as well as people we want to like us back in return).

It is one of the very few things that transcends cultures and generations. From the earliest cave paintings to modern-day Marvel cinematic extravaganzas, a good story is compelling!

A simple example that highlights the power of storytelling is as follows: A fact is “the Queen died and the King died”. A story is “the Queen died and the King died of a broken heart”. The second example, with just a few more words, adds a depth and richness completely lacking from the first. Stories, then, are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion. They are an unfiltered window into people’s lives.

Why is it better than traditional focus groups?

1. NOT “objective reality”, but “subjective reality”

From a psychological perspective, storytelling allows us to have a more “real” and unpolished view of what happened. Traditional focus groups place the emphasis on the moderator to ask questions from the discussion guide, and respondents will tend to anticipate what the moderator wants to hear, what other respondents may say, or what the “right answer” is, therein increasing the likelihood of groupthink.

In a storytelling circle, by contrast, respondents are tasked to tell their own stories. The emphasis is on the respondents to direct the conversation, with little guidance from the moderator.

This gives the respondents the opportunity to explain their thoughts with all the context, emotion and meaning they want – without the probing intrusion of moderator questions. When we tell stories, we tap into the conscious and unconscious part of the brain, so the result is a rich, rounder response providing deeper insights into the respondent.

2. NOT “elaborate context setting”, but “making sense of the context”

Traditionally, because moderators need to get specific answers, the kinds of context they need to set for their questions then becomes crucial, as that determines the frame of mind within which respondents will provide an answer. For example, if we want to know about decision-making within shopper journeys, we first have to establish the kinds of shopping to be talked about.

However, because storytelling circles place respondents’ narratives at the centre of the session, they determine the tonality of whatever is meaningful and important to them, which means their idea of “context”, and all of its attendant conscious/unconscious subjectivity, becomes a part of the broader findings. In this way we get to the heart of how, say, respondents see their shopping journey without the artificial constructs from the moderator.

3. NOT “rushed questions and answers”, but “deliberate pokes”

In conventional focus groups, a set of predetermined questions dictate the kinds of responses we want out of participants, which, even with the most skilled moderator, can sometimes turn into a Q&A session rather than a full open discussion.

In contrast, storytelling circles move away from questions and focuses on “pokes” – phrases and words that kick-start a story, but do not constrain the respondents in terms of the kinds of stories they can tell. Combined with a ground rule of no interruptions, we still end up with rich findings, but none of the time pressure of having to quickly offer a conformist answer.

4. NOT “follow-up questions”, but “full body listening”

A tenet of focus groups is to explore and probe and follow up, aimed at clarifying a respondent’s viewpoint; seeking consensus on an idea; or digging deeper into a response.

However, in storytelling circles, when we are exploring deep and complex experiences, giving respondents their mental space by not chasing down every detail of their story with follow-up questions, can result in them sharing more emotional truths, which in turn provides higher quality findings. Rather, the role of the moderator is to encourage stories and listen with an open mind.

In addition, as storytelling is usually chronological and descriptive, it minimises the chance for the respondents to over-rationalise, which often leads to cognitive biases. The skills are on the moderator and back room members to draw out meaning from the collective stories, not force respondents to post-rationalise and ascribe sometimes artificial meaning to their thoughts.

When do we use storytelling circles?

Storytelling circles are not for every qualitative project, but they are most effective when:

  • First, the subject matter is couched in emotive terms; in other words, what you want from respondents is not information, but inspiration. The “facts” matter significantly less in a story, so by having emotions at the fore, the storytellers then focus on expressing feelings and meaning.
  • Second, the moderator needs to be extremely skilled as well; he/she needs to take himself/herself out of the “Q&A” mode and learn to appreciate the meandering process that storytellers take; pick-up on meaningful diversions; and understand that in this case, “getting there” is just as important as what the topic of the story is all about.
  • Finally, this isn’t a methodology for all clients. Storytelling circles requires a level of trust between client and agency, and a willingness for the client to relinquish some of the control provided by a discussion guide. This is certainly not suitable for all.

Who has used storytelling circles?

Focus groups are criticised for generating clichéd responses. In contrast, storytelling circles elicit genuine and intimate details that have helped our clients better understand and so cater for and tailor to their consumers. Some examples include:

  • A consumer electronics giant wanted to make sense of what “brand love” means to consumers, and how it could gain an edge over its key competitor.
  • A global automobile brand sought to move beyond simply satisfying customers, and deliver a level of service that was more emotionally resonating.
  • An award-winning airline wanted to understand what true best-in-class in-flight customer service meant to premium class travellers.

For each of these clients, and more, we have gone beyond generic and tired respondent platitudes and found nuanced, considered and meaningful experiences from which our clients can create a better emotional connection with consumers.

The fact that we have applied this same approach to different clients for their specific business questions also puts us in a unique position to offer cross-industry learnings that can inspire new ideas and ways of thinking.

How can I apply it to my marketing work? Where can I go to learn more about storytelling circles?

We’re more than happy to share our success stories! Give us a call, ping us an email, visit our website, or just drop by our office for a chat.

The writer is Derek Goh, insight director at Kadence International.