IFST Sensory Science Group event: 'Noel, Narrative & Numbers' - Event Report

A Festive Event: Noel, Narrative & Numbers hosted by the IFST Sensory Science Group - December 12th 2019

In a world full of information and data, how do we present our research findings in an engaging and interesting way and importantly persuade the audience to take action on the results?

This event was sold out! Forty sensory & consumer scientists avidly waiting to hear the holy grail of storytelling from our line-up of communication oracles.

Mince pies were on hand and each table had a festive quiz of Christmas scents in mysterious bottles to test our sensory acuities. Thank you to the team at Sensory Dimensions, Nottingham, for holding the event and for producing all those magical bottles of festive aromas.

Being sensory scientists we are used to delving into the realms of consumer psychology, emotions and experiences and also in working with data and lots of it. Enticing our audiences with compelling stories should therefore come naturally to us. Perception is after all exactly what sensory is all about. What more could we learn? Actually quite a lot it seems!

We learnt how to tell the ultimate story! Three communication oracles presented to us, including our very own Lauren Rogers who was joined by two guest speakers, Charlotte Austin and Sam Knowles.

Lauren Rogers, Freelance Sensory Scientist and a member of IFSTs Sensory Science Group, coached us on how to invigorate the way we currently present our data with her talk - ‘“Do you see what I see?” even more effective ways to present sensory science data.’

As sensory scientists we are passionate about our data and we have to ensure that we successfully get the story behind our data across to others. In choosing how we do that there are hundreds of possible plots available, all visualising data in different ways.

Once the plot type is chosen we then have the choice of showing different elements (or not) such as action standards, error bars, significances, annotations and keys. We can choose different colours for lines or bars or data points and decide which product, attribute or panellist comparisons we want to include. We can also change the order of presentation of samples to reflect the story that we want to tell.

The amount of information that you should ideally show on your charts will depend on your audience and how much knowledge they already have about sensory. For new approaches to visualising temporal sensory changes, Lauren demonstrated ways to add animations to graphs and multi-media overlays of people talking about the sensations at different points during their consumption process. 

Data visualisation can be defined as a visual representation to facilitate understanding. Our mini-workshop session with sensory data proved this and highlighted that it is always possible to enhance the way we present our charts. The next two storytelling oracles took us out of our sensory comfort zone and into a world of communicating in a wider context to fully connect with the psychology of our audience.

Sam Knowles, corporate storyteller at Insight Agents and author of Narrative and Numbers, presented his talk which was also entitled ‘Narrative & Numbers’. This session focused on better data storytelling with emphasis on humanity, empathy and structure.

Sam talked about the traditional approach to structure stories, to have three acts – a beginning, a middle and an end. He also mentioned the idea of having a golden thread woven throughout. These are proven ways to take the audience on a more memorable and emotional journey. People tend to make decisions emotionally and then justify them rationally. Sam cautioned us on this as market research and sensory has access to so much data. Data overload can result in only partial attention and even boredom of the audience. It’s important to cut through all this overwhelming data, to turbo charge your story and separate the signal from the noise! Attendees had been asked to do some pre-event preparation to ‘write the first sentence of an elevator pitch for their company, organisation or product, using relevant data and statistics, to help substantiate the claims or positioning you’re looking to convey’. Using these example pitches Sam highlighted ways to sharpen their influence by improving the data impact and storytelling spin. Sam concluded with his six golden rules of storytelling: 1) Keep it simple (but also smart), 2) Find and use only relevant data, 3) Avoid false positives (e.g. be cautious about potentially misleading regression trends), 4) Beware the curse of knowledge (knowing so much more than the audience can, if not handled carefully, lead to a lack of empathy with your audience, 5) Know your audience and their mind-set and 6) Talk human (tell emotionally connecting stories but also have the rational numbers that support these).

Charlotte Austin, a communication coach & behavioural therapist who presents the AQR course, ‘Communicating your Story’ concluded the event with her talk ‘Engaging an audience emotionally as well as intellectually is the secret to impactful storytelling’.

Charlotte’s background in documentary film making for the BBC has given her experience of building compelling informative and emotive stories. She highlighted that the overriding reason of communication is - to engage, to inform, to convince and finally to stir your audience to take action. Charlotte explained ways to connect with the audience emotionally even to the level of causing chemical release of their ‘feel good’ factor hormones! (i.e. dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins). She emphasized that we need to speak to the heads and hearts of our audience. A successful communication is all about what it makes the audience think, feel and do. To get this right, a detailed level of planning is required as well as clarity in getting the message across and finally an engaging delivery is essential. You need to talk to their intellect (through facts and statistics) and also their emotions to keep them with you, to move them into action and to instil trust. Charlotte demonstrated some examples of the different ‘shapes’ of stories (i.e. dramas, reports, explanations and pitches) – these illustrated how as a story unfolds that each story type builds a crescendo of audience interest in different ways. Charlotte’s top tips for exceptional story telling are easily remembered as a mnemonic – SMILES: Simple language, Main points, Illustration, Let it sink in (pace/pause), Evidence and Summary. Concluding with her magic formula, we now knew what we had to do to become the most powerful story tellers ever – to demonstrate the evidence, explain the action required and provide convincing examples of the benefit that will be achieved if the action is taken by our audiences.

Author: Dr Nicola Stanley, Sensory Science Group Communications.