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Who's afraid of the Dunning-Kruger effect?

It’s painfully common to hear that ‘great research isn’t listened to’ or people are ‘still looking for the business impact' they need from insight projects. Negative perceptions of insight, based on weak presentations and inability to support sound decision-making, do not help bump research up the list of business priorities.

Then we all became storytellers…and lived happily ever after.

In recent months, the buzz around storytelling has populated the business vocabulary with a wealth of jargon and buzz words, which are incomplete or insufficient on their own. It’s widely accepted storytelling is important, so why don’t more people apply these principles to their project delivery? If you see this as only a problem for other people, are you unknowingly, sitting at the wrong end of the Dunning-Kruger curve?

One of the unintended consequences of the information revolution has been the spread of ‘half-knowledge ‘, the tendency for people to claim to they are an ‘expert’, when in fact they only possess a moderate amount of knowledge in a particular field. Dunning and Kruger described this effect in their paper ‘Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognising One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self assessments (1999)’. The authors observed that you need skill and knowledge to judge how skilled and knowledgeable you are. We are all victim of this cognitive blind spot, it’s not a pathological condition, it’s a human condition.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Those who have the slightest bit of experience can think they know it all. That's the peak at upper left on the chart below. With increasing experience, we all begin to see how little we actually know, and how modest our skills are. Those we attach genius to, recognise their talent, but tend to lack the supreme confidence we see in those with minimal expertise. From hubris to humility.

Changing behaviour is hard, and this bias only adds to status quo bias, the emotional preference we have for staying put. We can talk about stories, watch films, say it’s really important and claim we’re storytellers, while clients are subjected to yet another predictable, emotionless PowerPoint presentation, leaving no memory or inciting action.

Storytelling is a habit, a way of being, and the secret is found in daily behaviour and communication, or is this business as usual disguised as storytelling?

When a story grips us, it’s usually when we’re in the company of a professional, someone who has studied what makes stories work. We see this in good films and TV shows, be they fiction or non-fiction, that help us escape from our own thoughts and connect us with people and places, in ways that feel intimate and genuine. This is how we’re biologically primed to absorb information, it’s much more than an optional add-on. This priceless skill, is what marks us out from the algorithms and robots who are ready to take our jobs!

We’ve witnessed a number of storytelling myths, which are used in an attempt to justify claims of capability and expertise:

  1. It’s got a beginning, middle and end – but the narrative is not the story. A narrative presents events of a story in a linear, possibly chronological order. But the story remains the story even if it is told backwards. It’s too easy to confuse structure for story.

  2. There’s conflict in this story – do not claim to have conflict in your story, if all you have is a mild inconvenience. A mild inconvenience is boring. Researchers are privileged to explore dilemmas, identity, and tension in the human experience. This is the really interesting stuff. The truly human stuff. The stuff of stories.

  3. We’ve gone as deep as we need to - this is when the researcher is most distant from the genuine storyteller agenda. We can wrap our insight approach in all the rhetoric of storytelling but there is a world of difference between saying what we think people want to hear, and borrowing from film-making to embed insight in the minds of our audience.

We should be conscious that everything we tell isn’t a story. Working in advertising and marketing does not provide the base for evocative and powerful storytelling. As Robert McKee author of “The Screenwriter’s bible” noted, “flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth…when society experiences glossy, hollowed out, pseudo stories, it degenerates.”

Being a professional storyteller might look like an easy life; have an idea, write a script, produce it and win awards. The reality is successful storytellers dedicate the majority of their time to planning. You have to know exactly what you want and explore options, before deciding how you’re going to get there. Only then can we start telling our story.

We’ve been looking at the best ways to mitigate the impact of the Dunning Kruger effect in business and insight storytelling. As an insight-led team, we have learnt from the genius and history of film-making, and surrounded ourselves with people who have committed their lives to TV & film. Storytelling is part of everything we do, our commitment has been realised in the film and broadcast TV production arm of our business.

This expertise and experience forms the basis of our Unspoken training programme. Unspoken is not a programme to train researchers to be film-makers, that's a different job. But we do know how to enable the necessary behaviour change to connect with people on an emotional level, through imaginative storytelling.

Film-makers commit their lives to this, who better to learn from?

Storytelling isn’t only about the content, but the impact we seek from the audience, and how to generate that response. As Hitchcock famously said, “’I’m not interested in content. It’s the same as a painter not worrying about the apples he’s painting – whether they’re sweet or sour. It’s his style, his manner of painting them – that’s where the emotion comes from.”

We believe everybody’s secondary business is showbusiness.

I will be speaking, with Danny Russell, at an all-day Storytelling event on 14th March in Camden, London organised by Watch Me Think – to get yourself a place please email

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