Beware storytelling, practice truth-telling
Storytelling is a crucial skill to "sell" insights internally, but it comes with a risk. Storytelling makes it irrelevant to produce true insights.
"It was a hot summer day when I got a call from David…." This is how I usually start my conference presentation and keynotes, simply because stories suck the audience's attention. You merely want to know what's next.
Like a pleasant song, it feels painful when it stops. Your brain sings the song along even then. Same with stories.
It was 2008 when I was traveling to Russia, and I was fortunate enough to join someone's class reunion. What I was witnessing was unexpectedly amazing. Many times during the evening, someone stood up, raised his glass of vodka, and started telling a story. It always begins with a random occasion like…
"This morning I went to the shower, and it was hard to calibrate the water temperature ...(then interpreting this into an analogy) … Isn't it like in life?... You need time ... But once you find an optimal mix, it's such a pleasure. It's like with people, once I find you - my friends, I don't want to miss you anymore ".
I learned that the Russians are pure naturals in storytelling. It was so emotionally intense ... And the perfect validation of the point - Storytelling is so powerful.
BECAUSE storytelling is so powerful, it is dangerous.
Please check the following statements and figure out if you agree with them:
Differentiating our brand is a vital marketing task
Loyalty metrics reflect the strength not the size of our brand
Retention is cheaper than acquisition
Price promotion boosts penetration, not loyalty
I bet you agree since the trillions of great success stories have been written about those statements in the last decades. Still, none of them is true. Please bear with me for more!
In my college days, I made a strange observation. Students studying language majors were (not surprisingly) very eloquent. But their whole argumentation and the flow of reasoning when talking about what matters in life were odd to me and full of noncongruent thought and explanation.
This was astonishing to me, as I learned that language is the operating system that runs the thought process. Like math runs on numbers and variables, rational thinking runs on words and language. Fewer language skills or words = less elaborate thinking possible.
Although this might be true, it turned out that the eloquence's wealth can simply be misused to camouflage not existing logical stringency and non-existence of proper meaning.
People who are trained to judge their own comments on "how it sounds" as opposed to "what it exactly means" are not able to produce potentially true content.
The same is true with storytelling. Its key for someone with great insights is to transform the insights into actions because it is needed to win peers and business partners.
At the same time, storytelling is excellent to camouflage non-sense.
Storytelling is like nuclear power.
Nuclear power is able to generate electricity for the prosperity of our society. But in the wrong hands, it can kill billions of lives.
Have you ever thought about how to save your organization from the "BS army"?
Storytelling has become art on its own. Besides the story structure, the sequencing of a Hollywood movie, the use of metaphors to link back to existing memory structures, it’s built on this simple yet super powerful trick: "plausibility."
I served as a Sales & Marketing Director in my former business life, and I had monthly performance reviews with my sales reps. It was a rainy Friday which I will never forget…
Karl showed me his dashboard, and I asked him. "Mmh. Volume for X is down, why is this?". Quickly he started giving me a super plausible story as an explanation. Suddenly, I realized we were starring all the time at past years' data.
Switching that, suddenly, the volume went up. Karl again had a remarkable story at hand.
"How worthwhile are explanations really?" – I suddenly realized.
Storytelling gives holistic examples that illustrate the theory (= the insight). With this, the theory (=the insight) feels plausible.
Here is the catch…
Plausibility is USELESS
"Targeting always improves ROI" – right or wrong?
Sure, this is a plausible statement. The more of the addressed people are likely to respond positively, the better the effect will be.
But still, it's plain wrong, as you can read in the widely published work at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.
We (at Success Drivers) once did a Marketing Mix Modeling for a mobile carrier and included the ad channel of digital affiliate ads to the mix. The client could not believe its eyes. This channel that everyone was bullying as "junk ads"- showed further the most considerable ROI.
Sure, it was junk because affiliate ads are not targeted. But it is super cheap. Furthermore, nearly every internet user needs a mobile carrier. Affiliate ad reaches not ideal but relevant targets. The low ad cost overcompensates the lack of targeting.
The win of targeting needs to be traded by the rise of costs. If everyone rushes for targeting, it will have a lower ROI than non-targeting.
Reality is complicated…
End of the game: the mobile carrier stopped working with us and switched to providers that are happy to produce "plausible results".
Checking for plausibility means checking for existing beliefs.
It is helpful in the operational and tactical contexts. It's valuable if you don't have time to search for the truth, but you need to make decisions fast.
In the context of customer insights, plausibility can be DEVASTATING.
The role of customer insights is to create new knowledge, to challenge and change existing beliefs.
If your new insights only pass the test, when it complies with existing beliefs (=it is plausible), the wealth of mutual insights you are going to learn will be poor.
Plausibility is the end of the insights.
It is not to blame anybody, this is to open our eyes. The "plausibility" superstition has a long history that actually roots in social sciences.
When it comes to applied statistics, still today, students learn to proceed theory-led. It will take another article to clearly prove that this whole research approach is more harmful than helpful in today's world.
It's practical to publish scientific papers. But it is not helpful to make a relevant practical impact in real life nor gain genuinely unique, thus valuable insights.
"Nothing is more practical than a good theory" (Kurt Levin) was the professor’s mantra who thought me marketing and statistics. While certainly, the point is valid, it is abused by science and applied researchers.
The problem that we have is NOT that our "good theories" are not used. The problem that we have is that we do not use proper methods to DISCOVER good theories (=insights).
I know. This now violates the existing beliefs of most of you. You are skeptical. That's fine. Make up your own mind. (And challenge me if needed to write a more in-depth article about this)
Today's statistical practice of causal modeling is built on this unpractical theory-led approach and works like this:
Collect all hypotheses that are backed up by theory. If it's just speculation, leave it out from the model. Then test the model with a statistical modeling approach (can range from regression, econometric modeling, to structural equation modeling) to validate the relationships where you already have the theories.
The only meat on the bone you are getting is the linear strength coefficient of the relationships. No wonder that researchers are starving for richer insights.
And they roam to those who promise "richer insights" – the story and fortune-tellers.
The reason why not many are using conventional causal modeling in practice is not mainly because it is clunky and complicated. They don’t use it because it simply validates what you already know it is not that helpful.
Now, if a plausibility check is a numb sword, how can we test theories and potentially new insights?
The 2 types of insights: There are just facts (descriptives) and relationships between facts (cause-effect relations). The latter is what businesses are unknowingly asking for: "What action A will lead to outcome B".
The art and science to gain those insights can be labeled as "causal modeling". This talk here discusses this in more detail.
… and this article explains it in layman's terms.
JUST SIMPLY TRYING to be more causal will drive huge bottom line impacts
Every baby step to better causal modeling will bring you closer to the truth. It's a journey. You can’t do it wrong just more or less good.
The only mistake you can make is not doing it and reverting to the usual "plausible" procedure of looking at and comparing facts.
We need to accept that in truth, we might be wrong. Actually, we are all the time kind of wrong. With fancy stories, we make ourselves feel better and camouflage the fact that we are living in a big bubble of false beliefs.
Endless examples pop up if you take your "funnel glasses" off. Do you remember these statements from the beginning of the article?
- Differentiating our brand is a vital marketing task
- Loyalty metrics reflect the strength, not the size of our brand
- Retention is cheaper than acquisition
- Price promotion boosts penetration, not loyalty
All very plausible statements, right? Most backed up by "theory" and all are elaborated in established marketing books from Kotler & Co.
The world's largest marketing science institute “Ehrenberg-Bass” has access to the most comprehensive datasets spanning all industries from the largest brands and corporations in this world. They found no support for those statements and often found proof for the opposite.
Just because it's plausible, just because marketing textbooks site it, doesn't mean it is true.
Up Your Storytelling Game: Practice TRUTH-TELLING.
Storytelling is the art of wrapping a theory in a way it feels easily understandable and true. It feels like the natural way of proving a point.
But it's not. It's an illusion.
Now, what do we do with this new insight? Depending on your role in a company, the learning will be different.
TAKEAWAY FOR INSIGHT LEADERS:
Continue the art of storytelling but add the art of proving the truth to the mix
If you want to be an ethical leader, you should align your research with what creates the best stories. Remember, if you wish you can make ANYTHING fueling a great story.
- Instead, focus on creating true insights. (sounds self-evident, but it's the exception)
TAKEAWAY FOR BUSINESS PARTNERS:
Challenge your insights leaders to provide evidence of (causal) truth.
Every time they come up with facts, comparing or correlating them, stand up and shout "BS". Or if you are a nice guy with manners, tell them you don't buy it because of the apparent risk for spurious findings.
- Embrace insights that VIOLATE existing beliefs. Take them as an opportunity to learn and grow.
I like to close with three simple takeaways that will guide you on your way from storytelling towards truth-telling:
- be suspicious of plausible stories
- be aware that most of what you know is wrong
- be CURIOUS TO DISCOVER CAUSAL INSiGHTS
"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things."
- Rene Descartes