Where storytelling ends and communication begins: the essential skills for the researcher of the future

By Lucy Davison

Full article published in Research World

In a Research World article titled ‘Where storytelling ends and communication begins,’ we outlined four essential skills for the researcher of the future. We’ve been struggling with the ability to communicate clearly, powerfully and with impact as an industry for much more than a decade. In my view it’s high time to take a different approach.

What if we thought of ourselves as being in the communications business rather than in the research business? Then our impact and success would be significantly greater. This does not just mean applying great communication skills to the final outputs of the research project (which is what we have started doing), but it means approaching every project as a communications exercise from the outset, including the management of client relationships and the focus and definition of the project itself.

The structure, media and flow of our communication will improve immeasurably and eventually the outcome of the research will be action – strategic, insight-based, decision-making on the part of our stakeholders.

So what skills do we need to enable us to become communicators throughout every project?

  1. Listening skills

Listening skills enable researchers to scope a project more successfully and design relevant and appropriate solutions. For example, a client might think their problem is a drop in sales due to a new packaging design, whereas the issue might really be one of distribution with retailers moving the product within the store due to the new pack shape. These are two very different studies. They also enable us to understand the audiences for our project and therefore think about how they would like to be communicated with throughout, as well as at completion.

  1. Copywriting and editorial skills

Once we have identified the ‘real’ problem, we need to define it in specific, simple and meaningful language. We are often long-winded, hiding in the safety of long explanations, plus we don’t like to stick our necks out and give strong opinions. We fail to think like journalists, writing to engage and entertain; we rather focus on getting a lot of information across. This applies to all aspects of a project – we should use email subject lines like editorial hooks; we should hone our copy including writing accurate and specific objectives, clear and succinct status reports and emails as well as final reports and deliverables, and always make our communications shorter and clearer.

Our obsession with storytelling is all very well, but if we cannot write well, any story structure is going to fail.

  1. Basic design skills

There are several principles of good design – hierarchy, balance, white space, contrast, etc. – that can easily be learnt and applied on a daily basis. Every researcher needs to have an understanding of these and how to apply them at a fundamental level.  This will also enable the researcher to understand why something looks terrible, confusing or just plain weird, and what to do about it.

I’d also like to see researchers showing interest in good design by reading and reviewing material from outside the industry – so much can be learnt from looking at design magazines, posters and websites and developing a strong, critical eye for design.

  1. Multi-media knowledge

If we use our communication skills to listen and define the problem, we should, like all good communicators, then be able to apply the most relevant and appropriate media to the solution. So, from the outset we should be thinking about the different levels of delivery for the different audiences – which could range from dashboards (which data to show, which crosstabs to include?) to workshops (what inputs, what structure, agenda and desired outcome?) to single number charts (how to explain context and relevance?) and infographics, to videos, to presentations, to games and reports for different audiences.

Ultimately we want to make an impact. And we can do this by being better communicators throughout every project – using those skills to improve the design, process and delivery of what we do.