Stories Bring Data to Life

Data and information without a story is like a brick wall without mortar. The spaces between the metrics where people really make decisions are critical to understanding the truth. The payoff is huge: Resources spent on things that work, less wasted time, fresh ideas for innovation…and much more.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t change it”, one of my former bosses used to say. Another went even further: “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist”. Business obsesses over metrics, and while it’s a good thing, it has some pitfalls. As John Naisbitt[1] wrote in his book, Megatrends, “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge”. It seems that the more data we collect, rather than providing greater clarity, the more it fuels divergent theories, giving life to the old adage, “Statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics”.

To derive meaning from data about human behaviour, we have to get not only at what people do but also why they do it. “What” can be simple; a matter of careful observation and measurement. If we want to gauge the success of a new TV show we can measure viewership through various technologies. If we want to understand why people watch (or don’t watch a show), that’s a lot tougher. We have to tap into a complex of emotions, values, recollections, and past associations. It turns out that the main driver of these is memory.

While we continue to unravel how memory works, we know a few things. As Luke Mastin[2] points out in The Human Memory, “Contrary to the popular notion, memories are not stored in our brains like books on library shelves, but must be actively reconstructed from elements scattered throughout various areas of the brain“. Imagine not one library, but hundreds of libraries across a large city, none of them with full copies of any one book, but some only with covers, others with a few chapters, others still with more chapters of the same book, and some with tables of contents and references. How could we retrieve a complete book correctly ordered and bound?

It turns out that the key to retrieval of memories is stories. Research has long supported the popular memory trick of placing facts within stories to better remember them. In one of the most famous experiments, Bower and Clarke[3] showed that words in stories were recalled 6–7 times better than single words memorized alone. And it works in reverse as well; small individual memories can trigger large and complex stories, most famously Marcel Proust’s[4] seven volume Remembrance of Things Past triggered by dipping a madeleine biscuit in tea.

The business world isn’t well equipped to handle stories because they’re tough to distil, categorize, and measure. As a result, they’re usually at the bottom of questionnaires in the form of, “Is there anything else you’d like to comment on?” These comments rarely figure in business decisions. We do like our numbers! There’s certainty in numbers, scientific legitimacy, comfort that we have captured something real because we can quantify it.

People have told stories before the development of complex language, first through cave paintings and then through oral traditions that predate the printed word. It turns out that stories are more than entertainment; they are portals to memory, emotion, and meaning. As Shawn Callahan[5] writes in The Link Between Memories and Stories, “What do we know that conveys emotion, and helps us picture what’s happening? Yes, a story of course. The features of a story help us remember much more than just facts alone. Our brains seem wired for story structure.” It’s perhaps not surprising that the storytellers of literature, film, and song are some of our most valued and highly paid celebrities.

There is a way to capture, distil, consolidate, measure, and translate stories into powerful models of how and why people behave the way they do. The method is called Grounded Theory and is one of the most effective ways of understanding phenomena from the “ground up”. It bridges qualitative and quantitative methods, resulting in insights that are both profound and measurable. Curtin and Fossy[6] described it as, “A way of finding out whether the data analysis is congruent with the participants’ experiences.”

Grounded Theory is emerging as a practical business application for bridging data and stories to create meaningful models of how people make decisions and why they behave in certain ways. Getting at the “whole truth” translates to major competitive advantage. Since most companies operate with the same data, over time they tend to resemble each other in how they deliver value. A lot of energy goes to developing value-adds that might “stick” and create differentiation. Bringing data and stories together is the key to aligning value with what customers want.

Next time someone presents you with data, ask them…”What’s the story behind this data?” The answer might surprise you.

Dr. Courmanopoulos is the Senior Partner and CEO of MCG — Medius International Inc, a global consulting firm providing expertise in three areas: Intelligence, Strategy, and Organizational Development. For more information on the firm’s activities in Intelligence and Advanced Analytics please visit: http://mediusinternational.com/main/index.php/psychmentation/

[1] Megatrends. Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives. Warner Books, 1982

[2] The Human Memory. http://www.human-memory.net/index.html, 2010

[3] Bower, G.H., & Clarke, M.C. (1969). Narrative Stories As Mediators For Serial learning.

[4] In Search of Lost Time. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Search_of_Lost_Time

[5] Callahan, S. (2015). The link between memories and stories. http://www.anecdote.com/2015/01/link-between-memory-and-stories/

[6] Curtin, M., & Fossey, E. (2007). Appraising the trustworthiness of qualitative studies: Guidelines for occupational therapists. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 54, 88–94.