Lessons from a chat with Bill Bryson

Milena Puerta comments on what lessons can be learnt for market research from the author and MRS conference speaker…

The MRS annual conference is a hotly anticipated event in any researcher’s calendar. This year was no exception and the conference came to a close with a very memorable interview with the author Bill Bryson.

For those who are not familiar with him, Bill Bryson is an American authorwho has lived, worked and raised a family in England. He has written a number of humorous books on Travel, the English language and Science and he is widely known for his engaging writing style, which is very entertaining and full of observations.

The ‘conversation’ style interview with Bill Bryson started with him describing his initial steps into writing and how England played a key role, not only in the beginning but also in the development of his career. He also shared how he goes about the enjoyable yet painful job of writing books.

I think we’ve all struggled with writer’s block at times and this session provided an interesting author’s view on lessons that can be also applied to Research.

Being from Colombia, I was also especially interested to hear about Bill Bryson’s perspective as an outsider and see how this compared to my experience of being a market researcher in the UK. I think growing up in a different country provides us both with a unique perspective on UK culture and values.

Research and becoming an expert – It came as no surprise that Bryson does an enormous amount of research for each of his books; he becomes an ‘expert’ on the subject of each book and looks at the topic from different angles. He uses facts and statistics regularly and quotes directly from history and a wide range of research sources. This gives him authority; he did the research, and he knows what he’s talking about. The same happens to us in market research and, as he also noted, after doing so much research one of the most difficult jobs arises. That is, deciding what to leave out; which information or stories are really important to the whole story or are interesting enough to tell and which are not. At the beginning of our careers we tend to think that everything is interesting and important to the big story but we soon learn that is not the case and it takes skill, practice and experience to be able to discern and refine to get to the key insights!

The importance of having a plan – Although he takes a flexible approach when writing, he highlighted the importance of having a plan, even if only in his head, as without it he wouldn’t be able to write a book. The plan tends to change as he goes along but it is an important guidance tool in his writing. As the Spanish writer Cervantes said, ‘The person who has a plan has the battle half won’. How messy our work would be without a plan and how much time would be wasted!

The truth about how difficult it is to start writing – The other difficult task he mentioned is starting to write the book itself. Jokingly he said that he does endless research as a way of postponing the painful moment of starting to write. But after a few days he gets into a good rhythm and a new book is born.

Making complex data understandable – Bryson has the great ability of writing in a way that makes the complex digestible. One of his goals is to present highly detailed information in a way that readers can relate to or make it represent something they can easily comprehend. He received widespread recognition with the publication of ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ which was widely acclaimed for its accessible communication of traditionally difficult subjects. I think we can learn a lot from authors like Bryson about breaking down the complex so that those who are interested can relate to and engage with the topic at hand.

I left the session feeling I could really relate to the issues Bryson faces – both professions are challenging but neither is ever boring!