If you’ve been to my classes, you’ll know how much I bang on about the three R’s of quality writing — Research Research Research. Clear, concise and compelling writing always begins with clear, precise and insightful thinking. And it all begins with understanding your target audience. So let’s go into one of Australia’s leading and most innovative research companies, Ipsos Australia, and talk to Melbourne Director of the Mind & Mood Report, Fiona Collis. Her career as a clinical neuro-psychologist soon led her into social psychological research in the 90s. Those were the golden years for researchers. Truck loads of money were shoveled out by corporations looking to understand the consumer experience. Fiona, in fact, belongs to a very distinguished pedigree of social researchers. She was trained in qualitative research (which draws on social psychology) by Vicki Arbes, who was trained by Barry Elliot who was trained by one of Australia’s great thinkers, Hugh Mackay. Here is an abridged audio version and transcript of our conversation (the full audio recording is available upon request):
NDT: You and many of your IPSOS colleagues come from diverse backgrounds, Rebecca Huntley comes from Law and Film, Dorothy Dudley comes from Business and Counseling, you come from Psychology, what compels you all to go into people’s homes and get them to talk about their lives?
FC: I can’t really speak for the rest of the gang but what drives me is intense curiosity, the desire to understand people without judgment. If you brought judgment into the picture you’d come home at night and cry into your pillow. But I’m fascinated with people’s stories. I love going into people’s homes, getting them to talk about themselves and just listen. Listening to conversations that I would never have the privilege of doing in more conventional qualitative research. I’m not a central part of the process. They talk, I listen and go “wow, how fascinating!”
NDT: What kind of questions do you ask to get them going?
FC: We don’t ask questions. We give them a topic. Each year, we do six Mind and Mood studies, and two of them are what we call Mind & Mood Reports where we go in and ask them to talk about the things that matter to them in their life. They talk and that’s it. It can go anywhere. It’s their topic and they can tackle it from any angle they like.
NDT: What expectations do you come in with?
FC: We come in with no expectations and no questions. There’s no knowing where the conversation might go. But the other four reports we do have a theme. For example, we recently did a study with dads called The New Father, we’re currently doing work around the theme of Behaviour Change, which is revealing a lot of fears around work, children, time pressures and the future and also resentment by women who feel pressured by governments and corporations to change.
NDT: Who determines the theme?
FC: Partly by our clients who buy our reports annually. Those who are really clued into the importance of understanding society will be interested in anything, it’s all useful to helping them think outside the square. They recognise that’s how we innovate.
NDT: Is our most distinguished social researcher and founder of The Mackay Report (now the Mind and Mood Report) Mr Hugh Mackay, still making his presence felt in the corridors, boardrooms and coffee-machines of Ipsos offices around Australia?
FC: Absolutely. His presence is certainly felt in head and heart. I had the good fortune of being trained by him personally back in 2004. His training was about how not to ask questions.
NDT: How do you not ask questions when you want to know?
FC: Step back from the research group, let them go where they want to go with the conversation. When the discussion presses my buttons, I always remember the pith of Hugh’s instruction: “curiosity, not judgement”. Do not react, no matter how deeply personal, insulting or outrageous the comments might be. I now pass that instruction on to the researchers I train, and how important it is to listen without judgement.
NDT: How do you listen without judgment?
FC: I have to remind myself. I watch my breath. I even hide behind my notebook. It can be really hard. But focusing on my breath is it.
NDT: And it’s the simplest, and instantly available technique.
FC: And you also have to physically withdraw from the research group.
NDT: The Mind and Mood Report is Australia’s longest running qualitative social trends study, documenting the values, attitudes and behaviours of Australians for 35 years now; looking back at when you started out in the Social Research game, what were some of the unexpected findings in the mind and mood of us mob in Australia in the past 20 years?
FC: Just how little people change. And at the heart, we’re all the same. The more I do this job the more I become convinced of that.
NDT: Your non-directive research methodology has a remarkable way of getting under our skin and straight to our hearts and minds. When do you know when you’ve got the insight?
FC: Insight is more art than science. And this is why it’s valuable to have a team with different levels of experience and different backgrounds, because we all come to the analysis process with our own biases. Dorothy and I have been doing this for over 20 years, Hugh’s been doing it twice as long, and what stands out for us are the “ah-ha” moments. That gut feeling that goes “wow”. It’s an observation and separate from what people in the group say. And I jot that down without thinking about it too much …Hugh taught this. Don’t censor it, don’t make it sound smart, just write it down and we come back to it when we go through our analysis process. Then we all look at that and come up with a story that makes sense to all of us.
NDT: How do you know that the “ah-ha’ moment is not another judgment?
FC: The “ah-ha” is an observation, like a penny dropped. It suddenly makes sense. Judgment has the connotation that you’re labeling it good or bad, and we don’t do that.
NDT: In the business of profiling a Target Audience, we have been sliced and diced into many types over the decades, from generational categories like Boomers, Ys and Zeds to socio-economic scales like aspirers, strugglers and explorers etc, but as a copywriter, I’ve found that these descriptions don’t give me the empathy I need to write something meaningful. But Hugh Mackay’s seminal book, What Makes Us Tick: The Ten Desires That Drive Us, changed all that. It has revolutionised the way my students and I think when profiling a target audience. Just to list the 10 desires for readers not familiar with them:
1. To be taken seriously (to be noticed and heard)
2. To find one’s place in the world
3. To have something to believe in (to help us make sense of things)
4. To connect with each other, ourselves and nature
5. To be useful
6. To belong
7. The desire for more
8. The desire for control
9. The desire for something to happen (it makes life interesting)
10. The desire for love and to be loved
What is your view about cutting to the chase and writing to a specific desire?
FC: These desires are right at the core of people’s motivations. As long as you go to the heart of the matter in a round-about way, because there are people who don’t want to be taken there directly.
NDT: You definitely wouldn’t write something like, “Your desire is to belong and we can make it happen …”
FC: Certainly not.
NDT: You don’t state the desire, you address it without …
FC: … talking about it.
NDT: Precisely. And that’s an art in itself, just as you say insight is an art.
FC: Yes. And it’s a hard thing to do.
NDT: To paraphrase the words of Hall of Fame copywriter, the remarkable John Bevins: “Empathy is all in this job”, meaning copywriting. I’ve always advised my students that if they don’t have substantial insight on a particular target audience, the most direct route to empathy is to respect their reluctance to read your communications (unless it’s a page-turner) and impatience because time is precious and your communication piece is an interruption. How do you explain this attitude as a way of establishing empathy with your audience?
FC: Yeah! If you bore people with irrelevant information it shows that you don’t understand them, so they shut down on you. You’re showing them that you don’t understand what makes them tick. To have empathy is a way of demonstrating understanding.
NDT: One of my students asks this question: how do you get under the skin of an audience that is culturally, economically and socially different to you?
FC: You have to get to know them. You can’t make assumptions. Not everyone has the luxury of research budgets to do the kind of work we do but there are other ways of getting to them.
NDT: What are some of those ways?
FC: Spending time going to the places where they go. Talk to them. Read a book about them. Eavesdrop on their conversation in the cafes and trams.
NDT: Eavesdropping is an all time favourite for writers of all persuasions.
FC: The danger attached to that, and it could also happen in research too, is you listen in on the conversation and you think you’ve “got it”. I’ve seen people from the copywriting world come to one session and it sparks an idea and they never come back to the rest of the sessions. You need to see the whole picture. And this involves taking your time.
NDT: Demographics is too often where it begins and ends. You’re lucky if you get a sprinkling of psychographics. Why do you think so many of us in communications still stop at demographics?
FC: It’s about taking short cuts and responding to pressures about internal deadlines and budgets.
NDT: So what advice would you give a writer with those limitations?
FC: My advice is to make it your business to do your own research on an on-going basis. Be connected. Be observant. Listen. Be involved. Get out to where your target audience is and talk to them. Be curious about the world. Read books from the likes of Hugh Mackay. It all tunes you to writing better.
NDT: So that circles us back to Hugh Mackay’s book, What Makes Us Tick, and those ten desires.
FC: Well yes. That’s true. It’s an informed starting point. There might be other works out there, but it’s a good starting point.
NDT: So now I have to ask the obvious question, what makes you tick?
FC: I want to know. I’m fascinated in knowing about people and their stories. And I enjoy writing about it. Is it the desire to be taken seriously, I don’t know. The collection of insights gives me something to talk about, because there’s only so much listening you can do.
NDT: At the start of this interview, you said that the most unexpected finding was that people don’t change.
FC: Yes and what’s at the core of that?
NDT: Can you tell us?
FC: I think we’re disconnected from the core, as in who we really are. That’s part of what causes a lot of modern day worries and concerns.
NDT: Why are we disconnected from our core do you think?
FC: I suspect that trying to get to the heart of that is something that will direct my research over the next 20 years. To understand why we treat ourselves so badly.
NDT: I think we’ll all be looking forward to getting an answer to that question, so we’ll have to do a sequel interview further down the track. Many thanks Fiona for being a fountain of insight on Copy & Art in Action’s online education blog.
FC: My pleasure.