The students in my Storytelling with Data course were recently given an assignment to create a storyboard to discuss their analytical proposal with a marketing team. Most of the class struggled with this assignment. They didn’t know where to start in terms of explaining their approach without using regression analysis or other statistical jargon. Some scoffed at the emotional, touchy feely aspect of storytelling. I coached a group who were trying to solve for Citi-Bike’s distribution problem to personalize it. I suggested they introduce a commuter named Dan into their story and explain that he finds it hard to get a bike to ride to work from Long Island City to Midtown due to a lack of bikes at his neighborhood station. Once the story line is introduced, proceed to explain how the solution will benefit commuters like Dan. As I began to coach the students in this manner, it began to sway some of their stances on selling their proposals and convincing an audience as manipulative. I reminded them that you want to strike the right balance between telling a story and presenting the data.
Crafting a story around data may seem like an unnecessary, time consuming effort. The insights or data may seem sufficient to stand on their own as long as they’re reported in a clear manner. The analytical insights alone may influence the right decisions and their audience to act. This point of view is based on the flawed assumption that business decisions are based solely on logic and reason. Here are three reasons why storytelling is important in business:
1. Business decisions are not based solely on logic.
Most executives believe that analysis drive business thinking. Yet in a time when corporate survival often requires disruptive change, leadership involves inspiring people to act in unfamiliar and often unwelcome ways. Mind numbing cascades of numbers or daze-inducing PowerPoints won’t inspire people to act in unfamiliar ways. When you tell a story with your data, you create a shared human experience.
2. Numbers are not memorable.
Statistics may not be memorable but stories are. Messages delivered as stories can be up to 22X more memorable than just facts. Customer data in itself is pretty bland — primarily, tracked behaviors and demographics. Storytelling can translate these dry and abstract numbers into a compelling picture. Building off of the example of Dan from my student’s storyboard, the bike share data shows that he gets a bike in the morning from Long Island City and parks it at a station near Columbus Circle on average five days a week around 8:50 AM. In the evenings he gets a bike around 5:25 PM and drops the bike off at the station around 6:35 PM. When combined with foursquare data, we see Dan checks in at a Starbucks each morning and on Friday afternoon’s he checks into Wholefoods. We wouldn’t know from the bike share data that Dan likes to pick up dinner and cut flowers for his wife on Fridays. This is where we can begin to use data to shape experiences.
“When data and stories are used together they resonate with audiences both intellectually and emotionally for a lasting effect, you need to persuade the rational brain but also resonate with the emotional brain.” — Psychologist Jennifer Aaker
- Narrative + Visuals = Engage; Clear and concise communication along with a good visualization draws the audience in and grabs their attention.
- Narrative + Data = Explain; Providing context for your data makes it clear what it is and why it’s important.
- Visuals + Data = Enlighten; Creating a good visualization that clearly shows the data and what it means creates an “aha” moment.
Narrative + Visuals + Data = Change; Stories build a connection to the audience and can ultimately persuade them.
3. Stories engage your audience beyond facts.
Although good business arguments are developed through the use of numbers, they are typically approved on the basis of a story. A Nielsen study shows our brains are far more engaged by storytelling than by cold, hard facts. The brain processes images 60X faster in comparison to words. When reading straight data, only the language parts of our brains work to decode the meaning. But when we read a story, not only do the language parts of our brains light up, but any other part of the brain that we would use if we were actually experiencing what we’re reading about becomes activated as well. This means it’s far easier for us to remember stories than hard facts.
Challenge for the Business Storyteller
Analysis might excite the mind but it hardly offers a route to the heart. You must enter the heart of your listeners through information storytelling to get to their brains, especially where disruptive change is required. Even the most logical arguments won’t do the trick. Understand what your listeners know about, care about and want to hear. Combining data, emotion and empathy as part of a narrative is something every company should internalize.