Aesop for analysts: Why storytelling matters in business

As an anthropologist I can tell you that people are not always accurate reporters of their own behavior. Hopefully my expertise gives that statement authority, but I am not sure if you will really internalize or remember this assertion, so I will tell you a story to illustrate my point. When I was doing my dissertation research in India, one of my data sets was a group of features called “slicks,” which were created on the floors of buildings. These ovoid smooth areas were the result of wearing over time, and that wear pattern came from repeated friction of stone on stone as people ground grains, spices, and dyes. A local family had kindly invited me to dinner with them, and knew I was interested in food preparation so welcomed me to their home early so I could observe and chat. I asked the couple if they ever ground anything on the floor. They very quickly answered that no, so, I was quite surprised when a few minutes later, the wife asked the husband to grind some ginger, and he found a corner of the floor and started grinding it up. They hadn’t lied to me, but their conception and categorization of their behavior was different than mine, and asking them to report their actions could not show me what they really did.

Stories are memorable, they are explicatory, and they influence. Stories have power, and they matter for business. There is a reason MBA students learn via Case Studies. They are stories with a fancy name, with morals, positive or negative outcomes, or at times open ended pedagogical adventures.

Storytelling is an important skill for anyone who works with data and turning insights into action. A story is more than an account of incidents or events. It is a path to understanding, and serves a purpose greater than simply relaying information, because good narrative can enable decision makers to both see the import of the data, and see the path to action.

Constructing a story involves curation — a careful and thoughtful process of building the narrative, which can be framed in a variation on the classic research questions: Who, What, Why, and How

· Who is the audience?

· What do you want them to take away from the story?

· Why do you want them to take this away?

· How are you going to relay the story so that it has the intended effect?

Who

Audience matters. Not only does it help frame the language and formats used in a narrative, it determines the level of framing and context needed around the story.

What

This is key to determining the point of the story. There are a lot of engaging narratives out there, but why does this one matter — and in particular, why should it matter to this audience?

Why

This is closely tied to the who and the what, and the answer may force you to go back and shift the answers to the first two questions. What are the decisions or actions that need to come out of this story? If it is simply relaying information, why does that information matter in the bigger picture and why is narrative the best way to relay it? Stories help elucidate information by making connections. In other words, a story is more than an anecdote or isolated kernel of information, because these connections and the overall context matter.

How

Telling a story is different from explication — good storytelling builds a series of connections and meanings allows the audience members to draw conclusions and see the significance for themselves. This is different than the classic presentation format in which you lead with the conclusions, then support them — stories don’t come with bullet-pointed executive summaries.

· Involve the audience. That does not necessarily mean the narrative needs to be participatory, but it does mean the audience should be drawn in. Take them into the space as your recreate the event.

· Carefully vet and edit the details. Be thoughtful about the details of the story that you include to ensure they support, enhance, and explain the story. Filter them down so what is important doesn’t get buried.

· Construct a thread. Lead people to the conclusion, but don’t tell the story of how you got to the there.

· Choose an appropriate format. While we think of storytelling as an oral form, there are many formats. Video, PowerPoint, even infographics can relay a story. The power lies in the impact and ability to relay information to the intended audience.

I don’t consider myself a master storyteller, and I write this as much to help myself in my ongoing effort to become a better one, and to make better use of stories for influence and impact in my own work. The best ones help rethink and enable us recognize that a narrative we think we already know is in fact something different.