Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Alisa Harvey
People talk about the power of storytelling all the time. If you can tell a story through your presentation or case study, you will get colleagues to pay attention to you or get the job.
Storytelling is compelling. There’s a reason we love reading stories. They resonate with us, they connect with others, and can make the unrelatable relatable. When you tell a story, people are more inclined to listen, care, trust, and take action.
So when it comes down to user research, storytelling makes perfect sense. But when I tried infusing storytelling into my research process, it failed miserably. I’m a fiction writer, so I assumed storytelling would be inherent in my research presentations. But unfortunately, it wasn't as easy as I anticipated.
How was I meant to take the information I learned and turn it into a story while also being professional? I dove deeper in and did some experimenting.
How storytelling can help you
Before diving into my experiments (and some successes!) with storytelling, it's critical to understand how storytelling can help you in your user research process.
These are the impacts I have found when I incorporate storytelling into my presentations:
- Stakeholders started to get interested in the insights because they could relate to the content better
- It generated more ideas and creativity since stories give just enough details for us to use our imagination
- We all developed a shared understanding of our users and the issues they were facing—as humans, not just users
- Colleagues were motivated to take action when they felt the content was relatable, relevant, and authentic
- More people came to shareouts (beyond the product department), so we were able to work on a more holistic and strategic level
"Do you know the woe of our insights being ignored or gathering dust in the corner of a Google Drive folder? Storytelling helps immensely in mitigating that effect. Suddenly colleagues were much more excited about research and what they could do based on the insights."
Founder, User Research Academy
Sounds perfect, right? It took me some time to get there, but eventually, I learned some key ways to implement storytelling into my process.
The Hero's Journey
Getting to the dream state where stakeholders not only listen but are excited about your research is the ultimate goal. So, how do we get there?
I did a lot of Googling and tried to apply concepts from my fiction writing to my role as a researcher. Many websites bring up The Hero's Journey, a common reference point on how to tell a compelling story. Star Wars is an excellent example of The Hero's Journey.
I loved the thought of using these narrative or storytelling structures in my report, but everything felt like a miss. The "inciting incident" where Luke Skywalker is thrust into action? Well, nothing quite that exciting happened in my research.
Then going into "crisis?" That would be more about how my stakeholders wanted to send a survey when a 1x1 interview would be much better.
The "climax?" Would this be talking to users or seeing the patterns in the data?
I gave up after terrible attempts at turning my research data into a Star Wars saga. I couldn't draw the parallels in a way that made sense or helped me share data.
So, I went back to the drawing board.
Infusing storytelling into your research process
These are the steps I took to get to where I use storytelling much more frequently.
Understand the why and context
First, we need to understand why we want to use storytelling in our research presentations. For a while, I didn't even consider this. Instead, I just knew storytelling was essential and something I should be using. I didn't think about why I wanted to use it and what it meant in the context of user research.
I brainstormed the list I shared above: get colleagues to listen, care, trust, and take action. But, what did that mean in the context of user research?
- Listen. Colleagues genuinely pay attention and listen to the insights from the data.
- Care. Stakeholders want to come to shareouts and learn about the insights from particular research projects. They are excited about the presentations.
- Trust. Colleagues trust me to choose the best methods based on what they need and that the data is reliable and valid.
- Take action. Stakeholders are motivated to act on the insights to fix, improve, or create.
Getting clarity on my goals helped me know what I wanted to accomplish with storytelling. Then, I broke each of these goals into a step.
Will storytelling work here?
It's important to note that there isn't always a place for storytelling. Not every report, deliverable, or outcome needs to be a story, and sometimes we don't have time for that.
However, if you lack the resources to build out stories, that doesn't mean you can't create a good deliverable or report. If you're feeling stuck, check out my presentation report templates, one for usability and another for generative research.
How to get people to listen and care
My first step was understanding how to get people to listen. People listen to what they care about. I then had to ask myself, was I reporting on things that my colleagues cared about? I didn't know the answer to that, but something told me I wasn't.
So first, I had to figure out what was important to my audience. That meant interviewing stakeholders to understand their goals and needs. Then, I could make sure my reports touched on information they truly needed with this information.
For example, when I was working on an acquisition team, my colleagues cared a lot about growing the number of new users, increasing app downloads, and reducing CAC (customer acquisition cost). Knowing this is what they wanted to impact, I could capture their attention by talking about it.
"If I reported directly on how we could influence these metrics, the team cared more about the insights and future projects. They knew they would get information that could help the team achieve goals and also help them achieve individual goals for development talks and promotions."
Founder, User Research Academy
How to get people to trust
Next was understanding how to get people to trust me. This step took longer than the others because I had to deliver reports with the information they cared about.
However, once I put that first step in place of reporting on relevant information, people started to trust that I would bring them actionable insights. They began to feel that my reports were worthwhile.
Admittedly, it took a few months for this to happen, but I stuck with it. I also started to ask for constant feedback from my audience. I sent out surveys after each presentation or shareout to ask how I could improve the information, style, or deliverable for them.
My colleagues saw that I was trying to help them. Through time, they recognized I was doing my best to create something they needed and included information that brought them closer to their goals. Over time, the mixture of delivering relevant reports and asking for feedback gave colleagues the confidence to trust me.
How to get people to take action
I quickly figured out that getting people to act on insights was the part most impacted by storytelling.
People act on information that is relatable and compelling. So how do you infuse these concepts into your research presentations?
Relatability fosters a sense of empathy and togetherness. Even if someone hasn't been in the same situation, that person can still feel for you and understand your feelings and reactions. Relatability happens daily in informal conversations between friends, family, and colleagues.
We connect with others by sharing our experiences. But how do we effectively share participants' experiences? Videos, videos, and more videos. Whenever I put together a report, I string together impactful videos for each theme or insight I've uncovered. And then, I play them each twice during the presentation.
I also host usability/insight bingo night, where I put insights or usability issues onto a bingo board and put together a lengthy video containing clips from recent research. This approach gets people to pay attention and have fun.
Another way to cultivate relatability is to have your team try to achieve the same goals as users—roleplay at its finest. I ask teammates to pair up. One person does the tasks users need to do regularly, the other observes, and then they switch. This exercise can demonstrate to the team how painful some features or functions are.
Getting people to relate is the first half. Next, we must turn these pain points or needs that colleagues relate to into something compelling. That is what I find is missing most from insights, that punch or fire.
Impactful storytelling examples
What makes an insight compelling? The consequence. The "who cares?" Sometimes we stop at the surface level. While this isn’t the same as Luke Skywalker’s saga, there is still a way to tell the story to compel your audience to take action.
Story version 1
5/10 people struggled to find the discount code area in the checkout form.
This version hints at a problem. If people struggled to find the discount code area, they probably didn't use it. But, I would ask, so what?
Story version 2
5/10 people struggled to find the discount code area in the checkout form. They couldn't apply the code we sent for the jean sale, so they dropped off.
Version two demonstrates the problem more prominently. The team should take action with this version, but I have seen plenty of seemingly obvious problems that gather dust in Google Drive. So then, we need more.
Story version 3
5/10 people struggled to find the jean discount code area in the checkout form. They couldn't apply the code we sent for the jean sale, so they dropped off. The average order value during the jean sale was $50 (with the discount applied). Looking at this population, instead of making $500, we only made $250. We lost 50% of revenue from this issue.
Losing 50% of your revenue? If that isn't compelling for teams, I don't know what is. This version packs a punch and lights a fire. As much as you can, if you want people to take action, you need to talk about the consequences.
Want more details and examples? Read my in-depth article on how to write compelling insights.
Bringing the components together
Want more concrete examples? Check out this email course, where I give past examples of how I have tackled each step, with even more actionable tips.
Learning this skill was not a linear path for me and took a lot of patience. I had to ask for a lot of feedback on the way, and I encourage you to do the same! Be patient as you try to implement these strategies, and be very open to feedback.
Storytelling isn't something you can do overnight, and you might not see an immediate impact. But, keep working on it, and I promise the shift will come!
Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs.
To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membership, follow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.