Last summer I found myself sitting in New York City's Richard Rodgers Theatre, restless with high expectations. Finally, the lights dimmed, the crowd hushed – and the show began. Three hours later, when the curtain closed, I skipped out of the theater overjoyed. And so did everyone around me. We had just seen the greatest musical of the decade, maybe ever.
We had seen Hamilton.
What does Lin-Manuel Miranda's (@Lin_Manuel) masterpiece have to do with market research? A lot, actually. He may have set out to make a musical, but he also reminded me of five ingredients key to the success of any research study.
Lesson No. 1: The power of story
Hamilton the musical is based on a book by the same name, an 800-page tome that is fascinating but also dense with details and tangents. Miranda distilled the book to its essence by plucking out the most compelling ingredients of Hamilton's life. He then polished the story with a hip-hop patina that made colonial American cool. And he inspired debate by casting actors of color in the roles of our white founding fathers.
Miranda found the magic of the Hamilton story and communicated it in a way that makes history more relevant to Americans today. That's our job as researchers, too. Findings can often be voluminous and dense. It's our job to boil them down to their most important parts. Then, we have to tell a story that makes the research approachable, engaging, and memorable.
Miranda so inspired me with his musical that I followed him on Twitter and bought Ron Chernow's biography on Hamilton – the tome I reference above. Had I never seen the musical, I doubt I would have ever picked up the biography of Hamilton. And had I picked it up, I am not sure I would have been motivated enough to finish it. Because of Miranda and his amazing storytelling ability, I was already immersed in the story and its importance, and engaged enough to seek out more info. This is so similar to our job as storytellers in research. We often have to find ways to connect our clients with the key elements of the story and help get them motivated to learn more.
At Murphy Research we spend much of our time and energy on developing engaging stories (see here, here, and here for some of our other thoughts on Storytelling). We deeply admire Miranda for doing the same.
Lesson No. 2: Change is never as fast as we think it will be
One of the most powerful and striking things about Alexander Hamilton is that people in his day struggled with many of the political issues we face today. In other words, times have changed – but also they haven't. The same can be said of market research. In our industry now is a time of innovation – virtual reality, for instance – but the problems and many of the best solutions remain the same. In the same way that I imagine Hamilton would make an excellent politician today (once he figured out how to work an iPhone and get a Twitter account), I imagine that if I put AC Neilson or George Gallup on a project today, they would do a pretty good job. And that's because although the tools and technology are evolving rapidly, the core skill sets are still the same.
Lesson No. 3: The Power of Intellectual curiosity
One of the most compelling things about Hamilton's personal story is the absolutely stunning arc his life traverses. Born to a very poor family in the West Indies, beset by one tragedy after another, he found his way to America to become one of the most influential figures in the history of the country. What's so fascinating is that much of his success resulted from one simple aspect of his disposition: an unbridled intellectual curiosity. He absolutely devoured information and people recognized his tremendous intellect and hunger for learning. He constantly looked for opportunities to learn and develop, which opened up more opportunities for him as people recognized the power of his knowledge. Rather than pursue power or wealth or fame, he constantly pursued knowledge which made him invaluable as a founding father.
There are many parallels in research. I am constantly struck by how consistently the people who find success in this field fit into that same pattern. They love to learn, they love to solve problems and ask why things work as they do. The intellectual curiosity leads them to pursue more knowledge, which then opens up opportunities when others recognize the value in that knowledge.
Lesson No. 4: Live story rules
Miranda has had many offers to bring Hamilton to a wider audience (think Hamilton on TV, Hamilton live streamed, Hamilton in VR), and he has turned down all of them. He believes this story is best seen live. He is passionate about the power of live story and the emotional resonance that comes from seeing it in person. After seeing the musical it's hard to argue with his rationale. The live connection with the characters, the music, and the audience is amazing.
As researchers, we are also often pushed to send quick reports, before we're ready. That pressure is only intensifying. There are things to be learned from this as researchers and storytellers. Most simply, as storytellers it seems like we might think about controlling the initial exposure to the story in some situations. But might we be better served pushing back on some of the those requests and prioritizing the story crafting?
I admire Miranda's willingness to stick to his ideals despite the enormous pressure to expand into other channels. There is an argument to be made that at times we should be slowing the speed of the process down and taking the time to meet and talk through details as a group.
Lesson No. 5: Don't be afraid to experiment
Before I had seen Hamilton I had heard that it is a hip-hop musical. I had no idea what that meant, but imagined Run DMC style rapping on Broadway. The reality is that the musical is more traditional than that image suggests, but Miranda clearly incorporated many hip hop elements and some unique storytelling devices. He is clearly a visionary and has mastered his field to the point where he can experiment with different themes but also knows when to stay within more traditional bounds.
I think as both research designers, and storytellers, we have to constantly push to innovate but also know when to stay with traditional methods depending on what serves the research or story.