Data and information only truly matter when they are processed, translated, acted upon and moved across businesses. Neuroscience demonstrates that information is most effectively assimilated through stories which are highly valuable in a data context where we are constantly sharing information and ideas.
A story offers many benefits to the audience:
• Appealling to our senses and engaging with our emotions;
• Penetrating our subconscious, making it easier for us to recall and retell;
• Enabling us to relate abstract concepts to tangible events or situations and join the dots between multiple information sets.
However, storytelling is often seen as a weakness among the data community and many analysts have steered away from this type of communication for fear it will denigrate the quality of their objective analysis and make their interpretation “soft and fluffy”. But, as a data analyst responsible for influencing decision-making and action from data, there are a number of clear benefits to incorporating storytelling techniques:
• Increasing cut-through of your message to a broader audience;
• Increasing comprehension of your message, resulting in a greater chance of inspiring action;
• Demonstrating the value you offer within the business.
So, how can data analysts incorporate storytelling without losing the meaning of the data or drifting into the world of fiction? The answer isn’t to rely on technology to do the storytelling for you. In fact, data storytelling is as much an intellectual pursuit as it is a technological one.
The data industry has invested significant effort in trialling new technologies to aid storytelling, such as data visualisation, videos, apps and online platforms to help support communication of data, but these are just tools for execution and do not create commercially-compelling stories in themselves. To create stories, we need to foster, support and develop broader commercial acumen and communication skills. There is no magic bullet to storytelling - we just need to build our confidence in applying storytelling in a commercial context.
How to tell a great data story
Here are my three top tips for using storytelling techniques with data communication:
1 - Dramatise conflict: this is at the heart of every good story and turns a simple observation into an interesting narrative that you want to follow. There are many ways to identify and incorporate conflict in your data stories, from highlighting the difference between stakeholder expectation and the reality, or the differences between different behavioural and attitudinal data sources, to the obstacles in reaching set commercial goals or targets. Conflict is messy and chaotic, but in examining the reasons for conflict, real insights can be drawn and a series of observations can be transformed into a strong story.
2 - Ruthless single-mindedness: great stories have a clear, unified message and the best data stories follow the same logic. Too often, complex analysis results in a multitude of possible messages, leading to confusion. Finding an overall message that holds the story together and runs through every piece of analysis as a thread makes it easier to communicate, remember and retell within the organisation consistently. Think about your story architecture and how your analysis supports the overall message. Lead with the message and use data to support it, not the other way around.
3 - Add colour, flavour and texture: Humans are sensory beings and incorporating elements that appeal to our senses through anecdote or metaphors is a great way to get your audience to connect with data on an emotional level. Using individual customer journeys or relevant metaphors that support what your analysis is telling you is a good way to explain both conceptual information and bring the message to life. Be specific about the experience, explain the nuances and use descriptive human language.
Storytelling can add richness to your analysis that can make a world of difference to how people perceive your insights. I’ve seen first-hand the impact it can have and encourage you to try for yourself.