Versta Research Newsletter

Dear Reader,

A client recently told us, “We have volumes of so-called insights sitting on our shelves, and we don’t know what to do with them.”

It reminded us how critical every stage of research process is, including the final stage in which research must be communicated to the people who make decisions. So in this newsletter we focus on three keys to effective research presentations at the executive level, based on our experiences presenting research in both corporate and academic settings.

Other items of interest include:

If you need research that’s rigorous enough for the boardroom and compelling enough that your CEO will act upon it, give us a call. Versta Research can help you wow your top management with research that is expertly designed, executed, and ultimately communicated.


The Versta Team

Research at the Top: Three Keys to Wowing the CEO

It is exciting when research gets presented to the very top levels of management. Why? Because it is an opportunity to see how research really matters. A top level presentation will highlight whether a research effort was expertly designed and executed to answer management’s critical questions—questions on which important decisions depend. Moreover, it is the ultimate test of whether we, as researchers, can rise above the dull recitations of numbers, percentages, convoluted sentences, and foggy charts that often plague research.

In this article we draw upon our work and recent conversations with several colleagues and clients to highlight some of the cornerstones that we (and our colleagues and clients) believe are critical to effective research presentations at the executive level.

1. Know Your Audience

Each of our clients has different needs and expectations of how we work with them, and the same is true of their executive teams. CEOs are not only different from middle level managers, they are different from each other as well. Every executive team has a culture that shapes how they work and interact. Knowing the audience is key, and knowing the audience at multiple levels is key as well.

Know what and how to present. It would be a mistake to assume that research presentations to the top should be brief, focusing on high level bullet points. Some CEOs like to see details and lots of numbers, others do not. Some want to see the bottom line first (the recommendations and action plans) while others prefer a story from beginning to end. When planning a top level presentation, we ask our clients: “Tell us about a recent successful presentation with these executives.” The answers always vary, so we are careful to listen for: (1) The big picture—level of detail, length of presentation, backwards or forwards, etc.; (2) Smaller details—whether lights should be on or off, whether the presenter should stand or sit; (3) How to position the research team—objective third-party vs. savvy insider; and (4) What the executive team already knows or does not know about the problem and the work done to date.

Show appropriate deference. One client told us that one of the most awkward ways we could flub a presentation is to forget that the audience is not just the highest level executive present at the meeting, but also the person who is trusting us enough to present this work on his or her behalf. Her advice was to make it clear that the work is a partnership and to show appropriate deference. One way we do this is by acknowledging the critical contributions made to the research by our direct contact and the client team. Why is this important? Because it demonstrates that we put our clients’ interests first. Our recommendations, the details we are presenting, our very presence in the room—these are all designed to help them, not us. We demonstrate that in how we treat our direct clients and their managers.

Listen carefully. “Knowing” our audience also means learning from them and hearing what they are saying during the presentation. One client noted that researchers often use questions to transition to the next part of their presentation, rather than addressing them head on. In other cases, he said, they interpret questions as “challenges” and take a defensive posture in trying to answer them. We agree with his advice to remember that we are there to help our clients, not defend our work. Questions may signal important areas of confusion or misinterpretation (so we need to explain), and sometimes they signal a need to re-think and re-analyze our data.

2. Tell a Story

Data is most effective when it plays a supporting role. A great presentation will focus on a story, not on data, so that ultimately, research is merely the vehicle to support, show, and prove that a story is true.

How do we extract the right story to tell? We start with the critical business questions that drove the research (easy to do if we carefully elicited those questions before committing to the research—see The Art of Asking Questions). We then assemble the key data points that answer the core questions. Then we work outward, assembling new data points to answer additional questions. We then divide those data points into three to five groups and then summarize each with a headline that avoids using data. One method we use is to pretend we’re writing headlines for news stories.

In our experience, a research presentation for top level executives should not be a recitation of what we did, how we did it, and what we found. It should present the puzzle, the question, or the problem that drove the need for research. And then it should lay out answers to those questions in a compelling way that has little to do with research. Of course as we do that, our audience is silently (or loudly) asking “But how do you know?” That’s where the research comes in: We share with them the numbers and what customers said. “And how did you get those numbers?” Now we can talk about methods. “Are you sure they’re right?” Now we can cross-reference with other data points. But methods, additional details, and more data points go into appendices or accompanying materials for reference, not in the presentation.

Charts, graphs, maps, color coding, and iconography are all excellent ways to present data in visually compelling ways. They grab attention, highlight important relationships and patterns in data, and get audiences excited about the story we are telling. But just as with data itself, they are only there as supporting material. The story rules, so we cut or revise anything that does not help tell that story.

3. Make It Useful

The idea that research should be “actionable” is an almost embarrassing cliché, in part because so much market research is not actionable. Online survey tools do not deliver actionable insights. Data and charts do not deliver actionable insights. A paragraph of text accompanying a graph that shows 74% of customers love your widgets does not deliver actionable insights.

What does it mean to make research useful or “actionable” to the highest executive levels? One client explained it thus:

“There need to be specific levers I can push. The research should tell me which ones, why, and what will likely happen when I push them. There needs to be more than “insight” that gets baked into my long-term strategic planning. I want more than interesting questions, more than just deeper insight that feeds my curiosity. I want to know what specific things I can and should do differently based on what I have just learned. Should I hire fewer people? Should I invest more in training? Should I hang up new posters? Should I get rid of a product?”

In other words, the story needs to lay out clear and tangible courses of action, outlining implications and likely outcomes. If possible, it needs to show the dollar impact of those outcomes as well. In one study, for example, we were able to quantify for the client not only the net dollar inflows attributable to their new service, but also the opportunity cost of not offering their service to all customers ($27 million!). Our presentation to the client showed clearly which lever to pull and why.

The Measure of Success

How do we know if our presentation to top level executives has succeeded—that it is really “singing,” as another client put it? We know we have succeeded if we have told our story, they get it and believe it, they understand how to use it, and they are interested not in us, or our presentation, or our research, but in the next steps they need to decide among themselves. They start discussing implications and strategies, and we, the researchers, become irrelevant. That is when we know we have done our job.

Stories from the Versta Blog

Here are several recent posts from the Versta Research Blog. Click on any headline to read more.

Genetics Affect Whether You Take Surveys

One source of survey non-response may be related to genetics, a surprising piece of the puzzle in understanding sources of sample bias.

Why You Need a Partisan Pollster

The best market research is often done by “partisan” researchers who are deeply invested in your success.

How to Stop Fraudulent Polls

Versta Research is one of 67 prominent research organizations backing AAPOR’s industry initiative to combat fraudulent and deceptive polling.

Who Are Your Anonymous Respondents?

Respondent confidentiality in market research is critical because it benefits you as a client. A Dilbert cartoon helps us outline ethics guidelines.

Optimize Your PR—Don’t Do Silly Surveys

There are three common types of surveys used in PR to drive news stories: serious surveys, solid surveys, and silly surveys. Avoid the third.

Tips on Easy Data Visualization with Excel

This shows an example of data visualization for market research using Excel color rules to interpret a large correlation matrix.

Bad Decisions with Better Graphics

Recent research shows that graphical display of data, compared to tabular, does not enhance rational decision-making. Telling the whole story is key.

The Age of Algorithms

Market research must develop and deploy complex algorithms for data analysis and insight. This article offers examples from Versta Research.

Social Media and Customer Satisfaction Research

Versta Research moderated a recent AMA thought leaders panel. An important area of agreement was that social media will shift customer satisfaction and loyalty research in dramatic ways because we can now add network analysis into the mix.

Forget about Research—Focus on Verstehen

Excellent researchers are usually driven not by an innate love of research, but by a desire to understand. Versta Research is founded on this idea.

Writing for Journalists and High-Level Executives

Good research reports require skillful writing pitched to multiple audiences, including top executives, reporters, and mid-level managers.

Visualizing Data: Five Tips to Using a Bar Chart

The key to visualizing data is to start with the basics. Here are six tips to using a bar chart when you want to tell a story with your data.

Using Mobile Technologies in Research

Mobile phones present powerful new options for rich, on-site data collection. This article focuses on tips and trends for mobile research.