Why stories, and not just numbers, matter in research

Ms. A was doing a research on driverless cars and wanted her readers to understand the benefits associated with driverless cars. To do the same, she conducted a series of survey across the country to investigate about these cars. Once her ‘investigation’ was done, she deliberated on two options for presenting her study to her readers. 

Style I

Ms. A created a report of the two graphs she had, describing the graphs and well…that was it. 

Style II

Ms. A created the same research in the form of a report on Driverless vehicles where she told a story. The story of driverless vehicles, what are they, where are they, why are they needed and who are the stakeholders of the driverless cars ecosystem. She then brought her study into the picture and drew a correlation with what she had already subtly established and then presented her detailed analysis, revealing the mystery.

Which one would you say is a better report? A set of just numbers or a story – a story of the driverless cars?

Just like Ms. A, a lot of people confuse research with just being about numbers. If you look at the first presentation style, it may well be understood by domain specialists but will a layman understand what it means? Knowing that 10% of Finance companies play an important role in driverless cars is good – but what role do they play? Oh! Wait. What happens to a reader who does not understand what driverless cars are and is handed these graphs as ‘research’?

The second presentation style is narrative. It is a story. The reader shall be told a story of what driverless cars are (Point one: attention of unaware readers grabbed!); how they work (Point two: the devil is in the details!), who are the stakeholders and what do they do  (Point three: at least finance companies makes more sense now!); and finally the revelation (Point four: the final analysis).

Clearly, while numbers are an integral part of research but is it what defines a research? Not really. A research study or – wait – rather a research ‘story’, needs to be seen as a detective or a mystery story where the plot focuses on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, reaching the ‘how’ and ending with the final ‘revelation’. Given this, research is not only about numbers, their complicated graphs, and their analysis – it is much more if it intends to engage its readers. It would not be wrong to say that a successful research ‘story’ has to be memorable if nothing else.

While storytelling can be quite challenging, it is crucial in research and is extremely fascinating. It involves telling stories with data, using graphs and figures as visualization, while simultaneously creating a background around it all for the reader to relate to it. Research subjects may be quantitative, qualitative, problem-solving, etc., and are boring (mostly!) While the numbers are okay, it is up to the researcher to make the research interesting and compelling enough for a reader to be thoroughly engrossed. If the researcher does not look at the subject of his investigation as a story and improvise it accordingly, a reader’s interest will not hold for long. It is about creating the mystery around the subject of investigation (the plot), building up the suspense (the problem) and finally revealing the analysis (the solution). This makes the study informative and entertaining, leaving the readers impressed and satisfied.

A research study could be target based but it is always meant to attract new readers as well. This may include people who have no idea about the subject of investigation, the type of data or parameters used and do not understand the visualizations presented to them. In such a situation, the reader needs to be told a story so that it grabs their attention and interest. It is similar to journalism (which also entails a lot of research if not only numbers!), where they tell us something that we are unaware of but because it is a ‘story’, and a ‘headline story’, our attention is captured. If a research study is explored and presented in a similar fashion, there is no doubt that it would grab the attention of millions and will be – well – talk of the subject domain specialists (and strangers if need be!).

One interesting trend that is being observed in research is the use of telling real stories of real people, real problems and real solutions (keeping in mind the subject). At times, telling stories enhances the reader’s experience of reading the research because the association is happening at a much more personal level and the relatability increases. A story within a story also leaves a mark on the targeted audience and is much more preferable.

In conclusion, if a research study has to be impactful, stories are the guiding force to get people excited. Improvisation in how research is presented can help a reader unravel the mystery (findings) behind the subject. The trick is in creating a dynamic storyline and to communicate effortlessly for the research to come alive.

Do you want the numbers or do you want to hear an interesting story? It is for you to decide. Remember, a good research will always tell a story.



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