Presenting unwanted research results

You have an industrial sponsor anxiously awaiting your words of wisdom from the research project you are completing for them. You know they have great hopes that the answers you will provide will be valuable and useful. And it all started so well….

But now you know that the results you have are not what they hoped for. Perhaps they hoped for the wrong thing. Perhaps things went wrong along the way. Perhaps somebody let you down. But for whatever reason, you’re pretty sure that what you have to tell your funders is not going to look like a good use of their money.

What do you do? This was the question that Adelina Chalmers answered in Tuesday’s seminar as part of the Collaboration Skills Initiative.AC2

She focused on situations where there is a strong commercial drive for the work and where there is a clear need for a short-term solution – this is not curiosity-driven research, but rather hard-nosed industrial research.

And she explained that you need to think about three things; What are you going to tell them? How are you going to structure what you tell them? And then how are you going to deliver it. And in this seminar she covered the first two.

So, addressing firstly the content; of all the things you could tell your industrial sponsor, how do you choose where to focus? Adelina’s answer was that it all depends on what you want the outcome to be and what outcome you think the sponsor want. What do you want to happen after you present? What do you think they want? Be thoughtful and specific. Remember what the problem is that they face – as distinct from the research question you addressed. So think about content from their point of view to discern what is most valuable. And think about it from your point of view to see what is most compelling. Your best choice of content lies at the intersection of the valuable and the compelling.

And just because your results did not answer the research question does not mean that your results are valueless. What insights have you acquired that might address the overarching conundrum that your sponsor faces?


Adelina then went on to cover the structure of presenting research results – how are you going to order your material to make it most accessible and most useful?

She highlighted the analogue of the reptilian brain at the root of human concerns – focused only on survival – so give them a quick answer that reduces the threat first, and promises to be interesting. This is number one – the “sweeping statement”. Only when your audience has processed this will they be listening for subtleties.10 points

Now you have to engage with them – and Adelina invoked the idea of the “wolf brain” as one level above the reptilian brain – so you then focus on empathy and belonging. Discuss the people aspects – the research team, the emotions during the journey of the research project, the challenges. This is when your audience begins to empathise with you. Explain the problem – theirs as well as yours so they know you understand them before you ask them to understand you. So cover items 2-6 in the table above.

And then, having passed to the highest level of brain function now you can engage with the logical aspects of your presentation. Now is the time to present the Twist – the way in which your failed research can prevent them from wasting investment, or the way in which alternative approaches you can envisage still gives them a way forward.

And finally, the call to action. You must tell them what next steps you want and why. Don’t expect them to guess. Keep the initiative.

Adelina illustrated her presentation with examples drawn from the audience which brought it all to life and demonstrated the approach in practice. And if you’d like a copy of her notes contact her at


Author: innovationcoaching

I consult and coach in innovation and its management, based in the UK but working nearly anywhere. This blog is just a few musings, observations and evolving thinking. I look forward to your comments

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