The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. Vol 3 Issue 7   July 2007

Whether in the form of a quote, an anecdote, a parable, or some other “story-based” format, it’s no secret that for most people, words are more compelling and memorable than charts and statistics.

This holds true in communicating market research data as well — today’s newsletter talks about the correct way to use “verbatims” in research.

Enjoy your summer, and as always, please click here to send us your thoughts and comments.

Julie Brown

Mark Palmerino
Executive Vice President

Verbatims: Made Too Sticky?

In their best selling book, Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath drill down on a simple question: “Why do some ideas thrive and others die?”

Drawing on example after example (everything from urban legends, to successful product launches, to persistent conspiracy theories), they demonstrate time and again that people are much better at understanding and remembering simple stories and anecdotes — even if they’re not true than they are at understanding and remembering the facts that may or may not lie beneath them.

As market researchers, we don’t find this surprising. In fact, we see a variant of this same phenomenon regularly, in the form of “verbatims” — word-for-word excerpts of respondent comments that while powerful, also have the potential to mislead.

Too much of a good thing?

As the brothers Heath explain, people are very good at remembering and telling stories, but not so good at (or interested in) remembering or understanding numerical data.

As a result, verbatims play an important role in research. First, by helping to inform those with neither the time nor the inclination to wade through a series of charts and graphs (e.g. C-Suite members). And second, by adding “an authentic, human voice” to flesh out the most salient points of a given research study.

The problem, however, is that the verbatims selected, highlighted and remembered, may not necessarily be the most accurate reflectors of the underlying data.

Consider this example: When a respondent sums up her customer service experience with Company X by saying, “If I have to push one more button to talk with a live human being, I’m going to throw my phone out the window,” everyone knows what she’s talking about.

A quote like this, if captured and highlighted in the research, is likely to be repeated around the office coffee pot for months to come. It may even end up as a company rallying cry; an anecdote that’s repeatedly cited as part of the justification for an investment in new technology, or better training, or whatever it takes to make sure we never hear that from any customer, ever again.

All good and fine, provided this quote actually reflects the point of view of the population being researched. In other words, just as researchers go to great pains to make sure the people included in a given study accurately represent the population being measured, we must also make sure the verbatims selected reflect the underlying data.

Just because one person says something catchy and memorable, it doesn’t mean that this person — and this phrase — has in fact accurately summarized the situation. Most of the customers researched may have felt differently, but when the presentation is over and everyone goes home, it’s a quote like this that tends to be remembered.

Add in the fact that there’s a natural bias towards highlighting the “great comments” in the first place, as well as the inherent oversimplification that occurs whenever anything is boiled down to a single sentence, and verbatims become a powerful tool that if used incorrectly, can lead to bad decisions.

What’s the solution?

Well, at the risk of oversimplifying a complicated concept with a catchy phrase, the solution is to “Do your homework.”

The quantitative research to ascertain the true nature of the data must be done first… before the verbatims are picked. When you take the time and make the effort to codify the facts, and then use that information to select appropriate verbatims, you’ve got the best of both worlds: a persuasive tool which persuades people in the right direction.

In summary, the purpose of conducting market research is to make informed business decisions using the data uncovered. And while verbatims can be quite helpful in clearly and memorably communicating these results, they’re only valuable to the extent they accurately reflect an underlying reality.

— Julie

Click here to share this newsletter with a colleague.

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Now that we’ve (hopefully) made the case for ensuring that the verbatims used reflect the underlying data, how do you go about choosing the best?

Consider the example mentioned above: “If I have to push one more button to get to a live human being, I’m going to throw my phone out the window.” What makes this such a powerful example?

Here’s what we look for…

  1. Brevity. The best verbatims provide enough context for the reader to understand the situation, but not so much that the most salient point gets lost.
  2. Emotion. You can feel the customer’s frustration in this example, and it’s one of the reasons quotes like this get talked about and remembered.
  3. Specificity. “…push one more button… live human being… out the window.” It’s easy to picture this scenario, and, as in any good story, the use of specifics gets the attention of readers and stays with them for a long time.
  4. Clarity. The problem that’s raised in this example is well understood. There’s no question regarding why the speaker is frustrated.
  5. Authenticity. While we do sometimes pare down verbatims to eliminate “ums,” “ahs” and the like, it’s best not to polish them. The best verbatims are, well, verbatim. This allows the true voice of the respondent to come through.
  6. Catchiness. As in this example, sometimes a respondent turns a phrase that really sticks.


Verbatims: Made Too Sticky?

Mixology (Putting research into practice)

Twist and Shout

About Us

Last month in this space, you read that we were retained by one of Australia’s leading banks to interview employees about their training and other development needs, expectations, and preferences.

This month, we are delighted to announce our recent appointment to assist yet again in the Learning and Development domain. CSR has been retained by one of the world’s largest certification organizations to test possible expansion opportunities.

“A quotation at the right moment is like bread to the famished.”

— Talmud

Enter your email here to subscribe to “Research with a Twist

Problems? Click here to send us an email with your request.
About Us
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data.


(617) 451-9500
Understanding What People Really Think

WordPress Lightbox Plugin