We’d like to thank those of you who shared your research “war stories” in response to our January newsletter, “Un-Friendly Fire”, about Stonewall Jackson. As promised, we sent the first 3 contributors their choice of American Civil War themed gifts. Kevin Jenne of Safeco Insurance won a copy of Rebel Yell. Ken Greenman of MetLife and a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous each won a copy of Ken Burns’ Civil War series on DVD.
Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory: You have no control, who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
– Christopher Jackson, in the role of George Washington, Hamilton, An American Musical
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A recent trip to New York City to experience Broadway’s newest hit inspired this month’s edition of Research with a Twist, titled “Who Tells Your Story?”
Julie Brown President
Who Tells Your Story?
It isn’t often that the opening of a musical is heralded with fireworks and a visit from a sitting President, but Hamilton, An American Musical has managed to achieve not just those enviable benchmarks, but also, enthusiastic acclaim and unprecedented box office sales since its Broadway debut. Having heard much about the show for its casting (a multicultural approach where most of the founding fathers are not portrayed by white-wigged, even whiter, men), genesis (the story was adapted from a 2004 biography), and unusual score (think Jay Z meets the Federalist Papers), I begged, borrowed, and schemed to get my hands on 4 tickets in late January (6th row: now that was an “unusual score”!).
And wow, was I blown away.
After the end of the show’s three fascinating, engrossing, flawless hours, my fellow theatregoers (all of whom are researchers) and I compared ideas about the lessons that this blockbuster holds for all of us who are active in research:
While having a good story is important, a great delivery is intensely powerful. As noted, the musical was adapted from a biography of Hamilton by Ron Chernow, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Although it was widely praised for its scholarship and careful attention to detail, the book barely made the New York Times bestseller list, being outsold at the time by such literary masterpieces by Going Rogue by Sarah Palin and The Truth by Al Franken. At no point in the book’s initial release or subsequent sales was there much evidence that it would become the basis for the biggest or best of anything, let alone serve as the foundation for the first musical to unseat The Lion King from its #1 box office grosser spot.
“How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…” From its opening line, Hamilton impresses on many levels, not the least of which is its facility with language. Here’s a sample of the outstanding facility with prose, and the kind of brilliant “rhyming” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda created: “A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists, Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is.” In fact, Miranda said in a 60 Minutes interview that he considered rap and hip-hop the best-fitting genres for the story due to the denseness and complexity of Hamilton’s writings. Certainly most historians admit that Hamilton’s works were of such intricacy that they are not easily comprehended. Many believe that the difficulties in understanding Hamilton’s product has influenced his place in history (generally, not as positive as many of his founding father peers), and it’s no surprise that his genius is being more fully appreciated now that his work is being “re-packaged” in much more “user-friendly” form.
I’m willing to bet that every person in the sold-out theatre the night I attended, some of whom may have paid as much as $2,800 a ticket, knows how to read a book. In fact, most would probably tell you that they love to read books. But I’m also willing to bet that none of them would pay $2,800 to read Chernow’s book. And it prompted us all to discuss: What can we do to the delivery of our research so that our reports are as memorable as Hamilton: the record-setting musical, and not Hamilton: the well-researched, but rather obscure, book?
Focus your story so it is relevant to the audience. While Chernow’s 731-page book covers the entirety of Hamilton’s existence, and then some, Miranda skillfully and accurately condensed the first 40 pages of that book, covering the first 15 years of Hamilton’s life, into the opening four-minute song. He understood that theatregoers would be more enthralled by the evolution of the character through the American Revolution, the first presidential elections, and his marriage and death, than in his early life as an orphan on Nevis (although that in itself is unique).
However, Miranda’s unwavering focus on the most compelling exchanges and events in Chernow’s tome isn’t the most brilliant aspect of his ability to keep a 200-year-old story relevant. It’s the fact that the audience cannot help but see and hear the many parallels to today’s political landscape when being entertained by lyrics such as:
“Immigrants, we get the job done.” (Lafayette and Hamilton, after the successful resolution of the Battle of Yorktown.)
“This financial plan is an outrageous demand. And it’s too many damn pages for any man to understand.” (Jefferson, during a contentious Cabinet debate, in an ironic observation given his propensity for writing.)
“A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor, your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor… Keep ranting, we know who’s really doing the planting.” (Hamilton, in an intentional double entendre aimed at Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Heming.)
We’ve learned that it’s best to not try to “be all things to all people,” but that there are almost always different lenses through which a story can be told. Pick the one that will make the findings come to life.
Often, even the most complete stories will leave the audience wanting more. If you haven’t seen Hamilton, you may be wondering how in the world a 3-hour play (edited by 15 minutes from the original Off-Broadway version) about someone’s life isn’t enough. But many who have seen the show want to learn even more about this fascinating figure and his family, driving sales of the book and soundtrack. Awareness of and interest in Eliza, Hamilton’s wife, has also been raised; my companions and I were astonished to learn during the show that after her husband’s death, she lived another fifty years, during which she co-founded and directed the first orphanage in New York City, and helped her friend Dolley Madison raise funds for the Washington monument.
In market research, questions are often more important than answers – they are what keep us learning, growing, and innovating. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.” We don’t, therefore assume that any one engagement will answer all questions, but rather, that good research will stimulate the kind of thinking that leads to improvement.
Here’s the Twist: When you see Hamilton, you will appreciate the poignancy of the closing song, “Who Tells Your Story?”, about legacy, making history, and the idea that we are all running out of time. But the experience of Hamilton overall is not just about “Who?”, but even more, “What?”, “When?”, and “Why?”. And most of all, “How?”, as in, “How Do You Make Your Story Compelling?”. That is a question to which all researchers can relate! (And if we can inspire audiences to pay $2,800 a ticket to attend our report presentations, we’re really doing something right!)
Mixology (Putting Research into Practice)
In our post-performance discussion, my companions and I agreed that there are several ways that us researchers can ensure our reports are more memorable:
Focus the report: For example, explaining methodology in page after page of text, particularly at the beginning of the report when the audience’s attention is freshest, is as sure a turn-off as it would have been had Miranda decided to re-enact all of the first 40 pages of Chernow’s book at the start of his play.
Keep the content relevant: Assuming a “one-size-fits-all” strategy for a report, and ignoring the fact that different audiences often require different information channels, emphases, and duration, are big mistakes – almost as big as it would have been had Miranda dismissed Chernow’s book as “Not a top seller, so who would be interested in this Hamilton guy, anyway?” For us, if we understand the audience will include teammates from the sales function, we focus on sales as the hero. If customer service is consuming the research, we highlight that aspect of the findings.
Explore alternative delivery methods: Many researchers, including CSR, are leveraging the easy-to-use technology available today to deliver reports with more entertaining content, including audio and video clips. We garnered more than our share of chuckles when we provided a film of a client’s customer “personas” being “brought to life” by “cast members” from our research team, with assurances from our client that our final presentation was not likely to be soon forgotten.
The Center for Strategy Research, Inc. (CSR) is a research firm. The “Twist” to what we offer is this: We combine open-ended questioning with our proprietary technology to create quantifiable data. As a result our clients gain more actionable and valuable insights from their research efforts.
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