Versta Research Newsletter

Dear Reader,

There are two critical elements to top notch research.

First, it has to be right, which means focusing on the rigors of research design, data collection, and statistical analysis. Second, it has to be heard, understood, and used, and in our view that means turning data into stories. In this newsletter we focus on what it means to turn data into stories, and we outline what you gain by doing so.

Other items of interest include:

If your research feels like just a bunch of data, reading a little Mark Twain might be just what you need. So please read on.


The Versta Team

Turning Data into Stories

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
– Mark Twain

Mark Twain was one of this country’s most compelling storytellers, and his famous quip about statistics points to a broad truth worth understanding: numbers, data, and statistics can be used to tell powerful and compelling stories. Why is it, then, that market research reports are typically dull recitations of numbers, percentages, convoluted sentences, and foggy charts? Far from telling lies, most reports fail to tell any story at all. What market research desperately needs is more art in its storytelling along with the science of research to help mangers and clients understand what matters and why.

Data Have No Meaning

Data never speaks for itself. Is 97% a large percentage or a small percentage? If it’s the number of businesses that need your new service, it’s huge. If it’s the percentage of airplane engines that continue to operate when air born, it’s disastrously small. If it’s the percentage of voters who support a new healthcare initiative in Washington – well, it’s probably a mistake.

The verstehen method in social science (from whence Versta gets its name) emphasizes that all data gets its meaning from a complex web of language, context, history, and human intention. Turning data into stories means extracting that meaning and making it explicit; it means moving beyond the numeric data and facts to gain a deep understanding of people’s worlds and experiences. The volume and complexity of a data set may be daunting, but ultimately it is tied to specific issues you care about, to questions you need to have answered, and to problems that are puzzling you.

How the Story Helps

Market research can be powerful if it is used well. It can give you information and insight about customers, products, needs, pain points, and aspirations. But often it sits on dusty shelves because the reports are too long and too focused on presenting data. Turning data into stories takes the report off the shelf and helps it come alive. The benefits are huge for you and your organization.

  • Turning data into stories tells you what to do. There is nothing inherently “actionable” about data until it is embedded in a narrative thatoutlines the problem, the solution, and the options for what to do. Your manager and clients will act based on the implications of a story, not based upon a set of numbers, charts, or data points alone.
  • Turning data into stories helps you integrate seemingly conflicting data. Every good research effort yields surprises, variation, and data that seems to point in multiple directions at once. This usually means you have successfully captured the reality of what you are studying. But the goal isnot to replicate reality, but to interpret it and understand it. Telling a story with the data will help you integrate and reconcile disparate streams of data. You will be able to explain contradictions, make sense of variation, and highlight priorities so that your manager and clients do not get lost in a forest of details.
  • Turning data into stories helps you avoid mistakes. An effective story helps reconcile conflicting data, and it forces you to be attuned to contradictions and variations that may not fit and that may require revising the story. Contradictions may actually be mistakes in the data, so you will find yourself wondering whether questions were asked in the wrong way, or scales were inadvertently flipped during programming. Reconciling conflicting data means double and triple checking that the data are right to ensure that every apparent contradiction fits. There are no surprises down the road with managers or editors saying, “This number doesn’t make sense!”
  • Turning data into stories gets your research heard and understood. Like Twain, most of us are easily befuddled by statistics, especially if there are too many of them and they are poorly presented. But most people understand and can relate to a compelling story, even if that story is about numbers and supported with data points. What if instead of that last sentence, we had written: “98% of survey respondents indicated that they either strongly or somewhat strongly prefer receiving information via narrative methodology”? Ugh. That’s a sentence that will
    sit on a shelf.
  • Turning data into stories helps you communicate research to multiple audiences. The “facts” that come out of market research can and should communicate different messages to different audiences. Your sales team may need stories about customers struggling and the specific ways your product will help. But your management team needs to know how big the unmet need is, and what strategic opportunities it presents.

While Versta Research staff have deep experience in several areas—financial services, healthcare, technology, and business process services—recent work about a disease called “ulcerative colitis” provides one example of the ideas outlined above. The data from our research compared physicians and patient attitudes about UC, with lots of numbers and measures about flares, levels of disruption to daily life, and so on. But the story we developed from this data was this: Patients with UC become so accustomed to pain that they under-report symptoms, and therefore physicians who are most attentive tend to underestimate the impact. It was a compelling story that spoke to multiple audiences: patients, doctors, healthcare media, marketing and communications teams, patient educators, and so on. The research was heard and used at patient conferences, in scientific medical journals, on morning news shows, and beyond.

In future editions of this newsletter we will outline specific steps you can take to ensure that you create and capture stories in your data. The best stories are embedded in the very fabric of the research, from beginning to end. In the meantime we would be happy to think with you about your next project, or help you revisit current data to help make better sense of it. Unlike Twain, we tell only non-fiction stories, but with the same passion and conviction that will capture your audience.

Recent Items on the Versta Blog

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

Making sense of statistics, from the NYT Book Review

Editors of the NYT Book Review remind us that statistics are essential in understanding the world, but always a challenge to communicate them in helpful ways.

PR execs highlight need for research and stories

Five of Chicago’s top PR executives outlined trends in the industry that highlighted the ongoing need for solid research that turns data into stories.

There are too many surveys

Companies who do too many surveys because it is cheap and easy teach customers to ignore them and they do not get insight. Here are guidelines to avoid this.

Two ways to find data for a PR story

Journalists like news stories based on credible research and data. Two ways to get data for a PR news story are mining data or doing a survey.

Visualizing data: Six hints on using a pie chart

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

When to use survey monkey

Survey Monkey is a basic tool that is useful if you have extremely simple needs, like asking just two questions. Other options are best for advanced needs.

About omnibus surveys

Omnibus surveys used to save money by sharing data collection with others. But with recent changes in the industry you can get better value in other ways.

A better way to get census data

Here is how you can get and use detailed, individual-level U.S. Census data for customized analysis and reporting.

Focus on solutions in PR surveys

In crafting a PR survey it is critical to document both problems and solutions. Here is an example of what to avoid, and some tips to focus on solutions.