The Power of Observational Research

February 2023
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Want more proven-in-the-lab techniques for telling better stories? Join PRSA and Ann Wylie at Master the Art of Storytelling, which starts on March 3. You’ll learn to engage readers with storytelling and other creative elements. Plus: You’ll get feedback from Ann and your colleagues in live coaching and editing sessions.

You’ve heard about MBWA, or management by walking around? Try WBHA, or writing by hanging around — going to the scene to observe.

Observational research is the most overlooked reporting tool there is. Which is a shame. Firsthand observation gives your copy color and insight that you can’t get any other way.

Observational research means that you, the writer, experience the event or product or procedure so you can recreate the experience for your readers.

  • Covering a new roller coaster? Get on and ride it.
  • Doing a piece on a new medical procedure? See if you can get into the operating room.
  • Writing about a new line of chocolates? You haven’t really done your job until you’ve sampled a box or two.

Through observational research, you show your readers what they don’t ordinarily see, and make them feel what they don’t normally feel. Observational research:

  • Makes writing vivid
  • Helps you recreate a scene you’ve witnessed
  • Turns stick figures into portraits and adjectives into sensations
  • Overcomes distance, putting readers in the scene, making them feel as if they were there

Steps for conducting observational research

So make like Yogi Berra and “observe a lot just by watching.” 

Hang up the phone, back away from the keyboard and go to the scene to observe. You can’t observe if you never leave your desk. Here are five ways to conduct observational research:

1. Spend a day (or an hour) with your subject-matter expert as she goes about her regular business.

2. Ask for a demonstration. Get the subject-matter expert to show you how she found the computer glitch or otherwise demonstrate parts of the story for you. When writer Cynthia Gorney interviewed Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) for The Washington Post, she asked him to draw one of his characters. As he sketched Yertle the Turtle, Geisel started talking about how he would developed the character. That got the conversation rolling.

3. Take a tour with the subject-matter expert. Let the plant manager show you “how things work around here.”

4. Find an action setting. Put yourself and your subject-matter expert in a situation that reveals something about the topic. When I profiled a customer-service guru, for example, I took him to a white-tablecloth restaurant where I could observe him observing the service.

5. Watch the subject in action, then talk. Be on hand while the surgeon performs surgery, for instance, then ask questions afterward.

Considerations for observational research 

These observational research methods can be time-consuming. Observing the CEO in her natural setting is not for every story.

Deadlines and budgets force most communicators to do much of their research via phone — or, worse, an email or a deck. So ask: What story on the agenda this quarter would most benefit from observational study?

Start campaigning today for the resources to go to the scene to cover that event, project or product. 

Copyright © 2023 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved. 

Return to Current Issue Writing & Storytelling | February 2023
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