MRS Storytelling Conference round up

Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin

Last week I took a day out of the office to attend the MRS Storytelling Conference. Along with rigorous methodologies and an enjoyable working experience, storytelling is important to us here at Old Salt, so it was a real treat to spend the day listening to presentations dedicated to the topic from a range of brilliant speakers. I left feeling inspired, having met some lovely people, and quite full after a three-course lunch and some delicious scones in the afternoon! While every presentation had a unique focus, there were common themes that surfaced throughout the day, one of which was that people only really remember three key ideas. In light of that, read on for three of my key takeouts from the day!

But first, a story about Old Salt

To give some context on the importance of storytelling for us we’d like to start with a story about our name. Old Salt is a nautical term for an experienced sailor and skilful teller of tales. We chose it because it reflects our research know-how, the importance of how we communicate what we learn, and our passion for what we do.

The first two messages are hopefully apparent once you know the meaning of Old Salt, and it is the nautical link that ties into our passion for what we do as it grounds our work in our family history. Both Claire and Syann come from families with a strong nautical heritage; Syann’s great grandad and her great, great grandad before him were Old Salts – after serving in the Royal Navy during WW1, great grandad Joe volunteered as part of the Dunkirk evacuation which saved countless lives. Claire’s Great Grandad Big Jack also served in the Royal Navy and worked on the sea trawlers; his love for the sea was so strong that he named each of his seven children after the ships he was working on at the time!

Takeout #1: Keep it simple

More or less every presentation mentioned the importance of simplicity in storytelling, because fundamentally the simpler an idea is, the easier it is for your audience to comprehend it and remember it – both steps that are essential precursors to taking action. This feels intuitive and like a no brainer when it comes to putting any form of communication together, but it’s a useful reminder, because it is much easier to complicate than to simplify. A simple story doesn’t mean that it lacks intrigue, or a narrative flow, instead it’s about ensuring that the core idea underpinning your output is clear and easy to grasp.

There are a multitude of tricks and tips to help with this, including building in the time to review and edit with an almost brutal mindset (kill your darlings, if you will); using metaphors or imagery to communicate the complexity of your ideas through known shortcuts and existing structures in your audiences’ minds; ensuring that the individual ideas and messages that you communicate tie back to your overarching narrative – side note, within reason, don’t force a narrative that isn’t there!; and finally, the pub test – can you tell this story in a sentence or two to a friend down the pub?

Another simplicity test I’m fond of specifically for research presentations is saying each slide in a sentence. For me it works on two levels: firstly, is the insight from the slide punchy and clear, and secondly, do all your sentences (i.e. slides) link up to tell a clear and powerful story?

Takeout #2: No man is an island

Not an introduction to tell your stories through poetry (although each to their own!), but a reminder of the importance of collaboration. Good storytelling isn’t shoehorned in at the end but built slowly and steadily throughout the research and analysis process.

Sharing early insights with clients to understand what the findings mean for their business and individual stakeholders helps to ensure the final story has emphasis in all the right places and will land with impact. At the same time, finding out what your end audience is looking for can also help with how you communicate the most compelling story; maybe they are indeed poetry lovers and that is the way to go, maybe they’re more visual, maybe they want to be able to unpick all the detail behind the story, maybe they only want one slide. If you don’t ask, you simply don’t know.

Takeout #3: Bravery never goes out of style

As already mentioned, the speakers at the MRS Storytelling Conference were brilliant. They came from a range of backgrounds with different styles and content, but every speaker brought personality and enthusiasm to their presentation. This is one half of our key takeout around being brave – tell your story with enthusiasm, as yourself. Your audience doesn’t want a corporate carbon copy cut out, they want to enjoy your presentation, and this is easier for them when you’re enjoying yourself, which means being yourself. The other side of being brave is about having confidence in the story you tell. Both in the narrative you craft and the tools you utilise to simplify or illustrate it – don’t be afraid to do something different!

Luckily, we feel well equipped at Old Salt to be brave with the stories we tell. We deliberately keep Old Salt limited to a senior team of two – working together across every project – so we know there are no hidden surprises in the data or contradictory datapoints to the narratives we craft because we know the data inside out. As we explore the data, we’re linking back to the overarching objectives, our hypotheses and the potential final narrative. Any insights that aren’t crucial to the narrative and core objectives sit in the appendix, allowing us to streamline the key insights while still including the necessary detail. It was also nice to hear the importance of being your authentic self from a range of other industry professionals – this is something we’re big advocates of, as ultimately it can only lead to more diverse and interesting stories.