• Martha Gordon

Comedians: Masters of Insight

I recently attended the 2015 annual QRCA conference in Orlando, which again proved to be three days of learning, sharing, meeting new friends, and visiting with fellow researchers I hadn’t seen since the last conference. For those unfamiliar with QRCA, it is the Qualitative Research Consultants Association, an organization for consultants involved in the design and implementation of qualitative research. Its goal is to “promote excellence in the field of qualitative research by pooling experience and expertise to create a base of shared knowledge.”

The content of the conference covered a wide range of topics. Some that you would expect, such as the evolving nature (and prevalence) of online methods, creating better, more impactful presentations through ‘storytelling’, and new tools/approaches to beef up your ‘toolbox’ for deeper, more meaningful, more actionable insights. These were all excellent and will give me a lot of food for thought and a fresh perspective as I go into projects moving forward. But the one topic that probably stuck with me the most – likely because it was the most unexpected – was about how comedians and qualitative researchers have a lot in common. At first this sounded a bit bizarre, maybe one of those talks that would be ‘fun and interesting, but not that useful.’ But as I was soon to learn, it was spot on.

The overall premise is that comedians are brilliant at insights. That’s their craft, really, at its heart. Think of Seinfeld, Louise CK, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer…when they make us laugh, they are tapping into ‘truths’ about ourselves. And when we laugh the hardest, it’s often because they’ve revealed something that we can really relate to – a deep-seated truth for us personally. What they do with those insights might differ, but understanding people, how they think and how they behave, is really where much of their material comes from. The truths might be obvious once we hear them, but they’ve shed light on them in a new way. And aren’t those often the best insights we get as marketers and researchers?

Claire Booth of Lux Insights was the presenter and researcher behind this presentation, and she did an exemplary job of synthesizing some of the things we (as marketers and researchers) can learn from comedians. First is the idea of vulnerability. Comedians are insecure – and they’ve used comedy to find their voice. They expose who they are to us, so that we can recognize ourselves in them. When we expose our vulnerabilities, people can relate to us, warm up to us, and begin to expose their own vulnerabilities. In a nutshell, from vulnerability comes truth.

Lesson two was about the idea of tension. Comedians are looking for situations where something doesn’t fit right, where something is uncomfortable. They might take something that’s just a tiny observation, something that strikes them as odd or interesting. Eventually they build that idea into a five-minute joke. As Booth put it, we can “hang on to the ‘baby ahas’ – marinate them, think them through, and file them away.” They are collected knowledge about people, brands, occasions, categories, etc., and can help us uncover new and potentially meaningful insights. In a nutshell, look for tensions and let the connections flow.

The third area Booth described was ownership. Comedians have to fully put themselves into their performance. If they don’t own it, we don’t believe it, and it’s not nearly as funny. When you are confident in what you’re saying, it comes across as authentic and relatable. It helps presentations to move beyond words on a page to stories that are remembered. As researchers and marketers, we don’t just collect insights, we also interpret them, and we should communicate our point of view. In a nutshell, own the delivery.

Another key takeaway for me was that sometimes you can find learning and inspiration in the most unexpected places. Who would have thought I could look to comedians to better my craft? Thanks to Booth, and all the presenters at the conference, who shared their knowledge and perspective to make it another great QRCA conference.