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In my previous post, How to communicate research insights effectively, I raised the notion that although we spend huge amounts of time agonising over research methodology, much less attention is paid to how we actually communicate the insights that emerge from research, and that this is something that really deserves much closer attention.

I discussed the findings of some stakeholder research we conducted amongst top management at a major media organisation. This revealed some interesting insights, not least that most top management holds research in high esteem, but therefore have extremely high expectations of it. They expect presentations to be given by knowledgeable experts who have mastered the subject, edited down their data to a digestible format, tailored their presentation to the internal audience (ideally consulting them along the way), and found ways of humanising the data, bringing it to life with examples, case studies, and real people.

In the remaining two posts in this series I will share with you some ideas on how to address this challenge.  First up is getting your story straight – identifying the key messages you want to communicate, and structuring and expressing these in an effective and compelling way.

What’s the story?

In my experience, the best starting point for preparing an effective research presentation is to think about it from the audience perspective. You might therefore want to start off by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Who is my audience?
  • Why did they ask for this research in the first place?
  • What is the single most important question in their mind? (If you don’t know, ask them!)
  • What’s the answer?
  • Then (if necessary) think about what their second most important question is, and so on.

Refining and structuring your story

As researchers, one of the most challenging facets of our job is living with complexity. Life is complicated, and so is most of the data that comes out of research fieldwork, either qualitative or quantitative. Our job is to see the order in the chaos. Striking the right balance between clarity and detail is one of the greatest challenges we face in putting together effective presentations.

To ensure that a clear narrative emerges naturally from your debrief, I would recommend that you go through the exercise of summarising the key points of your presentation on one page of A4, before you commit any of the detail to slide or report form.

Then ask yourself, each major point in your story:

  • What is interesting, surprisingly or shocking about this?
  • What is the supporting evidence?
  • Why should anyone care?
  • Have you given your audience any inspiration for what to do about it?

You might also want to think about what the 20-second “elevator pitch” is for your debrief. This is both a good way of helping you identify what the presentation’s focus should be, and a useful thing to have up your sleeve in case you bump into someone important on the way to the debrief, or have to talk at a later stage to someone who might have missed the presentation.

If you want to take a more systematic approach to getting your story straight, you might want to think about the Pyramid Principle. This is a highly structured approach to organising ideas that helps you sort a series of arguments or deductions into coherent groupings and logical hierarchies, developed at McKinsey & Co in the late 1960s. It is designed to provide a compelling rationale for its key conclusions, and to be easy for the audience to understand and assimilate.

Although Barbara Minto (who developed the approach at McKinsey) has turned it into a kind of science, actually most of us apply a version of the Pyramid Principle to tasks that we face in our daily lives. For example, a shopping list of food items becomes easier to remember and shop for when grouped into categories of similar items, rather than when just jotted down in a random order.


The key rules to building effective pyramids are as follows:

  • Ideas at any level in the pyramid must always be summaries of the ideas group below them
  • Ideas in each group must always be the same kind of idea
  • Ideas in each group must be logically ordered, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive

You can find out more about the Pyramid Principle by visiting this site, and Barbara Minto has written a book about it published by FT Prentice Hall.

Tell the story with headlines, and in the language of the audience

I have always been a firm believer in creating presentation charts with headlines rather than titles if at all possible. If the most prominent verbal message on your slide is ‘Attitudes to the brand – 3’ I would argue that this is much less likely to engage your audience than the headline ‘Lapsed users find the brand old-fashioned and lacking in innovation’.

Headlines draw the reader into a story, they capture the essence of what follows, they make speed-reading easy and, most importantly, they force you to make a single-minded worthwhile point on each chart.

It should be possible to get the gist of your research presentation by reading just the headlines. Body copy, graphs etc. should really be there to provide supporting evidence. And there are ancillary benefits to approaching a debrief this way. A good headline structure can often be ‘lifted’ to turn into a management summary, thus saving you work later in the process.

The final point I would like to make is about pitching the language to the audience. Not all audiences are the same, but I’m yet to come across any that actually prefer ‘business-speak’ to everyday English. This seems an obvious point in principle, but one of the hardest to put into practice. Sometimes the temptation to retreat into arcane, formal jargon seems overwhelming. Please do your best to resist it!

“Write English, not ‘business’…  NOT ‘a statement of our objectives’ but ‘what we are going to do’; NOT ‘methodological and implementation alternatives’ but ‘how we are going to do it’.”

Roger Mavity, Group Chief Executive, Boxclever