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Presenting Research: Converting Difficult Stakeholders

Presenting research: converting difficult stakeholders

Written by Casey Scott-Songin

I am the founder and writer of the Creative Researcher, a site that empowers people to learn more about their audiences through quantitative and qualitative research. I have over a decade of experience doing consumer, audience, market and user research across multiple national and international brands.

One of the things researchers often have to struggle with is getting buy-in of the research findings or recommendations with difficult stakeholders from around the organisation. Research findings often challenge someone’s assumptions or expectations, so it makes sense that some people might be quite hesitant to take a researcher’s word for something – even if their word is backed up by solid evidence!

It’s often enough to make researchers question why they bother to put in the work to make sure their methods are rigorous and hold up against scrutiny. I’ve had plenty of times where I leave a presentation thinking: why bother?. And while it’s often difficult to overcome your stakeholders’ deep-seeded assumptions, there are a lot of things that researchers themselves can do to support their findings and help stakeholders’ realise their value.

At the end of the day, taking an individual and tailored approach to working with your stakeholders will provide you with better results. However, here are a few things you can do to help stakeholders examine and accept your research findings that represent the voice of your consumer.

Start small and show impact

A really good research project may end up with a large amount of useful findings and recommendations for a variety of stakeholders. And while that can be a really good thing, it can also be overwhelming for the people who have to implement the changes. 

Think about breaking down your recommendations or insights into categories of little things that are easy to implement all way up to things that might impact big strategic decisions. Highlighting that some things are really easy changes may give your stakeholders a good place to start. You could even do this collaboratively with your stakeholders. Ask them to think about: 

  • What changes can you make today?

  • What changes will show results by next week?

The second question is important because you want to highlight recommendations that can start to show immediate value of the research. The integration and acceptance of findings and recommendations might be a multi-step approach. If you can show that even little recommendations can provide value quickly, then it will give stakeholders a reason to go back and re-evaluate some of the bigger insights and recommendations that came out of the research. 

Finally, make sure that you address the things you know your stakeholders are looking to change. Ask them what they expect to come out of this research right at the beginning of the project so you can give them insights and recommendations directly related to their hypotheses. If you can speak to the things they think they know, you’ll help them start to think about the other things that came out of the research as relevant too. 

Use research to mitigate risk

This is a tool many researchers already use, but it’s so important that it bears repeating.

If you can show how using research could help a company or organisation mitigate the risk of a decision and save (potentially a lot of) money, you can be one step closer to turning your stakeholders into research converts in the future.

One of the ways a research project could mitigate risk is by testing prototypes at a really early stage. The earlier something is tested, the easier it is to shift focus and direction to something that is actually solving a real world problem for your audiences or customers. The further a project gets in the development cycle, the more money is spent potentially developing a product that is not going to be useful  and will not sell. Helping stakeholders understand that prototypes do not need to get to full fidelity before concepts can be tested can help save the organisation hundreds or thousands of dollars in development! 

This is a good reason to have case studies of previous work where this has happened. Showing real world examples of a product that shifted focus or was redeveloped using insights that eventually led to a successful product launch is a really good way to get stakeholders on board with doing research earlier in the product development stage. 

And it’s okay if the research comes back saying that the product is going in the right direction! Some may argue that that is a waste of money and resource, but the knowledge that a product is being developed that will definitely have an audience once it is finished can also help fast-track the development of a product when it comes to organisational priorities. So basically, it’s a win-win for the stakeholders involved.

Rethink how you present findings

Sometimes it’s not the findings, but the presentation that can hold a researcher back. Have your stakeholders listened to hundreds of research presentations that went nowhere? Do they feel that their opinions are always validated and they never learn anything new? Maybe they aren’t sure how they can integrate the findings into their everyday practice.

As researchers, we must wear many hats. We are project managers, recruiters, researchers, and designers! Over the years, I have learned the value of a well-designed report. I remember when I first started, I made this powerpoint presentation that had wood panelling as a background. I thought it was really cool! But learning from your mistakes is key, and as researchers, we walk a fine line between needing our reports to look official and authoritative but also engaging and playful. 

Every organisation will have its own internal expectations and designs. It’s up to the researchers to think about how a research report will deliver on the expected aesthetic while also causing stakeholders to think deeply about the findings and recommendations within the report. As a researcher, you should think about two main things when putting together a report:

  • What will catch their attention?

  • How long do you have their attention for?

Do your stakeholders love reading 40 page walls of text, because it makes them feel like they really get the proper background? Maybe they only have five minutes and just want you to tell them what to do. Knowing what your stakeholders need, and what they have time for, will help you design a report that works well for them and increases the chances that they will actually read it!

Get stakeholders to make clear action plans

Another thing you can do is make presentations interactive. Stakeholders will often listen to a research presentation and think “well that’s interesting” but then leave the meeting and never do anything with what they’ve learned. Instead, ask them to answer the following two questions in the meeting:

  • How does these insights impact my day to day?

  • What is one thing I can change based on these insights?

Using meeting time to get them to reflect on how the research impacts their job means that they will have the mental space to think about it, and will be doing so with the insights fresh in their mind. For an added bonus, you can get stakeholders to do this alone and then share their answers with each other! Either way, your stakeholders will walk out of your meeting with an action plan to integrate at least one research finding into a decision or process. And if they can successfully do that, it opens the door for them to start thinking about what else they can do with what they’ve learned!

Run Ideation and Prioritisation sessions

One of the things that I think is really critical for researchers to know is that a research project doesn’t end with a report. I see research as a leg in a relay race, and it is up to me to make sure I pass the baton as best I can to the designers, product managers, and other stakeholders who will be taking the project forward. Working together to pass on the results means you are on hand to solve any ambiguity, answer questions that might not have been dealt with in the report, or make sure that the importance of different findings are being represented in the decision making process. The opportunity to work closely with designers can often be a real joy – I love seeing my research insights brought to life in the designs.

Another thing researchers often do is think they have to do everything alone. In fact, the more you involve your stakeholders in the entire process, the better off projects often end up being! I like to run workshops immediately after a research presentation that gets stakeholders to prioritise recommendations from a business point of view and turn them into actionable to-dos. As researchers, we are often also good workshop facilitators, and we can use this skill for more than just qualitative research methods (I mean, once you’ve facilitated a focus group with belligerent participants, working with skeptical stakeholders is a walk in the park!). Even going so far as running workshops where stakeholders can ideate or design solutions to audience problems will help integrate audience needs into everyday practice.

And finally, don’t let your stakeholders leave the room without a clear action plan! If there isn’t a clear action plan with next steps, the likelihood of all of the work you have done being integrated into designs and decisions gets much smaller!

In conclusion…

If you feel like you’re not being heard, don’t fret! There are many things that are in your control that help research projects be better integrated into wider teams. 

Take control and do what is in your power to make sure that research recommendations are actionable, and help your stakeholders create action plans before they leave the room. Oftentimes a skeptical stakeholder just needs one project to be converted to a research champion, so don’t give up!

What methods have worked for you?

Everyone has dealt with a difficult stakeholder at one point in their careers. Let me know in the comments before what has worked for you!

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