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As researchers, so much of our attention is centred on developing and applying the right kind of methodology to generate useful, insightful and robust research outputs. Years of training goes into developing the skills, and innumerable workshops and conferences debate the minutiae of how to do research in intricate detail. Yet, relatively little attention is paid to an equally important facet of our job—how to communicate research findings effectively, convincingly and succinctly in order to maximise the impact and value of research. This seems strange to me, as, without effective communication, the research itself is utterly pointless.

Presentations and reports are the one tangible output of our work. They represent our best opportunity to make a difference and other people’s best opportunity to judge us. As one marketing director described it to me: “When you present, you’re interviewing for your job.”

As a research commissioner, I have sat in so many debriefs where a quant agency presented countless almost indistinguishable graphs, following the order of the questions as they appeared in the questionnaire, then tried to find some way of stringing it altogether in the conclusions section; or where a qual agency has followed the structure of the discussion guide slavishly in the construction of the debrief, leaving the audience half asleep by the time they reveal their great insights at the end of the presentation.

As a research practitioner, I have tried particularly hard (though not always successfully) to avoid these pitfalls, and to find a better way to do things. Over the next few weeks, I intend to share some of my learning through a series of posts on this site. I hope you will find them useful.

First we will talk about getting your story straight — understanding the expectations of your audience and making sure that you answer their most important questions. Then we will talk about the best way to structure and tell your story within your presentation. Lastly we will talk about using visuals, graphs, video etc. to illustrate, dramatise, and humanise your story. This is an absolutely critical area – and one where The Knowledge Agency has invested substantially over the years, particularly in terms of building skills and resources for producing cost-effective but compelling video outputs (click here for more details) – but it has to be approached within the context of a relevant and well structured story, otherwise even the smartest infographics, or most filmic videos will fail in their mission.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s see what some clients have to say about this issue. A few years ago we were asked by the head of research of a major media organisation to conduct some interviews amongst top management to understand what their expectations were of the research function. The results were extremely interesting.

The key messages were as follows:

  • On the whole, senior management has a high respect for, and interest in, the research function. This is great, but it does mean that their expectations are high. It’s important to present well, be in command of your subject, and get the details right.
  • It’s important to know your internal audience. They’re all different, and you have to know what their issues are before you can write an effective debrief. Where possible, try to involve them in the process. And never, ever, talk down to them.
  • Know it all, but don’t show it all. Editing your presentation is really important; you have to keep the main presentation simple, focused and digestible. However, it’s important to have a grasp of the supporting data, and be prepared to access this from appendices as appropriate.
  • Make it personal. Never present on a topic about which you have no personal understanding — you are just setting yourself up for a fall. It’s also important to humanise the data, bringing it to life with examples, case studies, and real people. These are usually the elements of the presentation that most engage and influence the decision-makers.
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