Presenting DE project outcomes is a tricky business. You want to bring your participants to life yet at the same time convey that while this person may have their quirks, they are not unique enough to be ignored. In other words this participant’s behavior or beliefs are symptomatic of your client’s market and accurate enough to extend to a large enough customer segment.
I liken this balance to historical fiction; the commonly accepted facts of history exist in the story and are the foundation unto which a particular plot line hangs. As the ethnographer, you set your characters (your findings) in the given context (the historical backdrop). It’s the accepted facts that are universally true or true enough for the purposes of the product or service and the plot line that really drives it home to the “storyphiles” in us all.
It’s natural to present this way because our brains work this way. We think in melodrama understand by creating cultural narrative structures. George Lakoff has made a career out of studying these ideas (mainly in the political realm) and how the language we use physically shapes our minds. His work is built on the work of Erving Goffman (who described how we use frames to understand institutions) and Charles Fillmore (who described how words are defined relative to frames). Because words and frames are activated unconsciously in our brains the way and order in which they are used fires off certain neurons. When this is done repeatedly (that is if you get lots of client meetings) it creates neural pathways and circuits, which changes brains. So by repeating certain language in our stories, we can actually create what is normal and convince people of certain truths.
It’s important to note that this is not manipulation. While it can be used manipulatively, the key is to understand that this is how we reason and that there is no such thing as neutral language. Instead, language that has a history, a history that automatically activates certain understandings. Sometimes, it may be part of an ethnographer’s job to break down those presupposed metaphors and introduce other, equally relevant ones to convey an insight.
If the complications of language were not enough, there’s another complication that’s emerged in our digital age. As David Weinberger describes in Too Big to Know, we live in a new era of knowledge. Whereas facts used to take great effort and time to expose (Darwin took seven years and seven volumes to determine if barnacles are mollusks or crustaceans), right now facts do not stand out as clearly as Darwin’s definitive stand. Right now, knowledge includes more than just facts, but also the disagreements and debates around those facts. This makes decisions quite a bit harder, yet at the same time it makes for a fuller plot as you can navigate the twists and turns of a debate before arriving at the answer.
All of this speaks to placing yourself in your client’s shoes and having your client place themselves in the shoes you’ve made for them. Knowing all this, it’s important that you are confident with these findings in the first place. Bear in mind now, confidence is not absolute certainty. Some amount of doubt is inescapable, but absent designing a product and launching it based on ethnographic insights, you have to be comfortable that you informed your client of the relevant socio-cultural issues at play. So how can you be confident? Intuition? A hunch? A client-Turing test where if it makes sense to the client then it is true enough? I think if the story is both rationally and emotionally logical while being true to your participants, then it is worth standing by.
I also think the Q & A is really the answer. That’s where meaning cuts through the fog of written and “presentation” language. That’s where your client can really parse the details and decide if they can really see themselves in this story or not.
For more on the art of storytelling, I suggest this Current TV interview of Ira Glass. Glass has made a career of appealing to the “storyphiles” in us and he shares his techniques here.