Author Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin: Why We Need To Start Humanizing Data Through Storytelling

Yitzi Weiner
May 19 · 13 min read
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I want to inspire the humanizing of data through storytelling. Data has great potential to inform practices that improve the world, but it is usually shared in sterile ways rather than accompanied by the stories needed to get people to act on the data. For example, the Syrian Civil War left six million people internally displaced within Syria, and about five million refugees had fled Syria. But other countries weren’t accommodating all of them, and donations were majorly lacking. Politicians and the general public had this data, but people weren’t acting on the data. This is because viewing data engages the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that is analytical but non-emotional, which makes one less likely to care or act. One day a tragic photo of a 3-year-old boy named Alan showed up online with a story: Alan’s lifeless body had washed ashore after his family took desperate measures to take an overcrowded, inflatable boat to safety. Alan had family in Canada eager to receive him, but a paperwork glitch denied him entry. Within 24 hours of this photo’s publication, donations for the refugees increased by 750%, Canada reconsidered its immigration paperwork, and countries stepped up to take in more refugees.

People are overwhelmed and unlikely to connect with data, whereas a personal story will move them. When people only knew the Syrian refugee data, they wouldn’t act. If people only knew Alan’s story but thought it was an isolated event, they wouldn’t have the direction to act. But it’s the data plus the story that are so powerful together. Data is important as evidence but must be humanized with story to get people to move.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D.

Dr. Rankin is a Fulbright Specialist for the U.S. Department of State who does public speaking and writes books for academics, educators, and those wanting to share information (data, knowledge, etc.) effectively. She has written 12 books, delivered 200 keynotes and speeches, written over 130 papers and articles (some for her column in Psychology Today), and the American flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol Building (White House) in honor of Dr. Rankin. Visit www.JennyRankin.com; follow @JennyGRankin on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Thank you so much for joining us Dr. Rankin! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

My career began as a junior high school English teacher, where my love for writing fused with my fascination with the best ways to share data and information. I was obsessed with using data to help my students, and with finding the best ways to make new information accessible, engaging, and memorable for students and colleagues. This obsession followed me as I moved into roles as an assistant principal, then district administrator, and then chief education & research officer of an educational technology company. Along the way I earned two doctorates (a Ph.D. and L.H.D.) and was determined to get my knowledge and research findings out into the world so the information could help more people. Thus, I began writing books (my 12th just came out today) as a key way to share my insights, and also began professional speaking. Those two outlets — writing and speaking — complement one another well and make for a fantastic career.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

When I was first hired to teach the Post Doc Masterclass at University of Cambridge as a visiting lecturer, the organizing committee assured me that they would put me up for the nights. What I didn’t expect was what will forever be one of the greatest experiences of my life: They gave me my own tower in Jesus College, which is the university’s oldest college and was formerly a 12th century Benedictine nunnery. Excavation was occurring in the stairwell leading to my room. I arranged for a friend to join me and we couldn’t stop figuratively pinching ourselves.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

A prime challenge was ignoring the naysayers. Six years ago I decided to turn my Ph.D. dissertation into a book. I had never published before, but I was thrilled with the notion of landing a publisher and using this outlet to share my findings so they could help more people. My husband at the time told me, “You’re wasting your time on that book. It will never be published. You’re a nobody.” His words hurt me deeply, but I knew if I wrote a book it could help people (in that case, students). I couldn’t let his words hold me back because this matter was about more than just me; it was about those who could benefit from the book. I thought, “Nobody knows this stuff I’ve learned, and this unawareness is hurting children and teens! I have to publish these words!” That was 6 years ago, and my 12th book was just published today (all with top publishing houses). All the knowledge in those books’ pages has been able to help others because I didn’t listen to anyone discouraging me from putting myself out there …and I also divorced that particular naysayer. ;-)

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Starting out I didn’t know how publishers worked. I wrote my first book in its entirety, as well as a second companion book, before submitting it, only to learn the publisher only wanted two or three chapters to make its decision on the project. The good news is this allowed me to work out kinks along the way and craft good descriptions of all chapters (something publishers do require in the book proposal); the bad news is I would likely have been able to release the book sooner if I’d been less ignorant of the business. This experience taught me to always read (and complete, as much as possible) book proposal forms before writing the actual book.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Now that my latest book (Increasing the Impact of Your Research: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Findings and Widening Your Reach) has been released today, I’ll soon be shifting gears to my next book, which I’m really excited about. It’ll be a mainstream nonfiction book about humanizing data through storytelling. The style and audience will be similar to that of books by Gladwell and the Heath brothers. I love taking data — something many people perceive as either dull or scary — and making it lively and irresistible.

I’m also excited about a class I’m teaching in a couple of weeks. It’s one I teach each year for the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on my last two books’ content, but since their huge conference was canceled this year (due to the coronavirus pandemic) I’ll be teaching this one online through their Virtual Research Learning Center. The 4-hour June 3 class costs $35 (all the money goes to AERA; I teach it for free) and we already have about 200 participants registered (and counting).

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

I like the story I use in a chapter on public speaking to instill the importance of remaining flexible while delivering a presentation. This excerpt is from pages 169–170 of Increasing the Impact of Your Research: A Practical Guide to Sharing Your Findings and Widening Your Reach:

Despite your best plans, you might discover that the first of a set of audience exercises goes poorly, or your humor might fall flat. To improve the situation, you can do your next planned exercises in a different way or omit the jokes for that particular crowd. Change things up in ways that will not cause your presentation to fall apart (for example, you can skip some slides, but you cannot redesign individual slides on the fly).

Remember Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech? That famous “I have a dream” line was not even written into what King had planned; rather, 11 minutes into the speech, a gospel singer named Mahalia Jackson shouted, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” (Grant, 2016, p. 100), compelling King to spontaneously add the entire “I have a dream” section of his speech. Unlike King, you probably have an audience smaller than 250,000 in person and millions watching from home, and the stakes might not be of civil rights movement magnitude. Surely you can wing it, too, to modify your presentation as necessary based on how your audience is responding.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Knowledge only has maximum benefit if it’s shared widely and effectively, and key tips can help anyone do this on a massive scale.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

Write, read, and revise while standing in your audience’s shoes: Once we writers lay down a sentence and feel we’ve relayed a concept, it can be hard to look at our words with fresh eyes and stand in the shoes of the reader. But failing to try to read from our primary audience’s perspective can cause us to miss huge holes in our writing that could have been easily filled. For example, once I read an article on writing an effective proposal, and it wasn’t until six paragraphs in that I could guess the author meant a business proposal. However, nowhere in the entire piece was the phrase “business proposal” ever used. The meaning of “proposal” could have alternately meant an op-ed proposal to a problem, a book proposal, a grant proposal, a marriage proposal, or something else. If the author had stood in his or her reader’s shoes and remembered, “Hmm, I’m new to this piece. What is this about? What does the writer mean?” he or she would have realized the article required more clarification.

Share a clear message in your work and your branding: Many people think Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history, became the face of every girl’s right to an education because she was shot in the face by the Taliban for daring to attend school as a girl. But Yousafzai was already an adept promoter of this message before she was shot. For example, she already had her own column blogging for the BBC at age 11, four years before she was shot, and she had already won a national peace prize and Desmond Tutu had nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize. In all her endeavors, Malala propelled the same message: that every child has the right to an education, regardless of gender or anything else. Making a clear, singular message shine in your communications prevents your key point from being lost, helps you to be known as the authority on that subject, helps people accept your message, and helps people publish and buy your books. Once you are an established author it will be easier to write about a multitude of issues, if you desire, because by then you won’t have to worry about maximizing every chance to be remembered.

Maintain a press/media webpage: Journalists look for these pages to find information they need, but they also look for these pages as an indication you are quote-worthy and used to working with the media. Seeing a list of previous press experience on a reporter-friendly press page will help assure them of this. The attention of reporters means more exposure and thus more people reading your books. Visit www.jennyrankin.com/press for a press page example. Add a link to your press page to your email signature and to your correspondence with journalists. Also make your media appearances obvious on that webpage. Once I landed on NPR and made it obvious on my press page, other soundbites and interviews rolled in quickly: NBC News, HuffPost, O: The Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Good Housekeeping, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Reader’s Digest, and many more. I believe none of my appearances in these outlets would have happened without my press page. If you have little or no media exposure to add to your press page, register with the free directory Public Insight Network (PIN), which is used extensively by TV stations and networks (like PBS), public radio (like NPR), news organizations (like The Washington Post), and universities to find experts to book on television, on radio, for articles, etc.

Maintain a strong social media presence: Publishing houses are businesses, and they want to know that you and your image will help sell your book. An established media presence is crucial to exposure, partly because it connects you with the media and so many other chances for exposure. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 71% of Americans use social media to get news, connect with one another, and share information. Contrary to popular belief that Millennials dominate social sites, Generation X (ages 35–49) spends the most time on social media (nearly 7 hours per week), and the average time for all adults is over five hours per week spent on social media. Your presence on Facebook (still a leader for older age groups), Instagram (the fastest growing social media tool for every age group), LinkedIn (crucial to establishing professional credibility), and Twitter (the most popular for journalists and researchers, and also a tool known for the kind of commentary in which authors partake) is especially crucial. Consider how I landed the chance to lecture at University of Cambridge (an honor that leant me major credibility as an author since it’s one of the world’s top universities): I saw a Twitter post about the position, and that post linked to the class’s Facebook page, where I found a link to the university’s application instructions. If you aren’t engaging in regular dialogue on social media, you are missing a vital chance to be established as the kind of go-to expert people will want to read books from, and you are missing the many book promotion opportunities to which social media will lead you.

Bring something new to the table: Every book proposal will ask you to make the case that, in some way, your book is not just like something else already out there. You might have the same style as another book or the same subject matter or some other similarity, but you should offer a different spin on things. Otherwise you’ll be sharing the market with those other books just like yours. Being different will also help your book stand out and be noticed. Think of every tennis player you can. You might recall Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe, who broke barriers; Andre Agassi, who sported a heavy metal mullet and wore acid washed jean shorts on the court; Serena and Venus Williams, who wear bold fashions and sometimes purple hair; Anna Kournikova, who starred in her then-boyfriend Enrique Iglesias’ music video; and John McEnroe with his infamous tantrums. But most of those are not even considered the world’s greatest tennis players of all time. Those I named are/were great players, but it was their unforgettable image (forged by breaking barriers, personality, style, or other markers unrelated to their skill on the tennis court) that pushed them over the edge into being 100% memorable. Likewise, combined with being a great book, your writing should carry something new that readers will remember and tell others about.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I love and read books, but the habit I believe benefits my writing the most is voraciously reading articles that are:

1) on widely diverse topics.

2) designed for rapid consumption (e.g., online).

Mental Floss is a fantastic example of this. Such sources provide great examples of keeping thoughts on track and sentences concise, as readers are increasingly impatient (readers of online content the most so). Such sources also feed me a steady stream of inspiration for bringing unique angles and facts to life.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I draw inspiration from books that dissect issues around a common theme while merging research with storytelling. Examples include Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, and Outliers: The Story of Success. The research is needed to ensure the ideas are credible, but the stories are needed to bring the ideas to life.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I want to inspire the humanizing of data through storytelling. Data has great potential to inform practices that improve the world, but it is usually shared in sterile ways rather than accompanied by the stories needed to get people to act on the data. For example, the Syrian Civil War left six million people internally displaced within Syria, and about five million refugees had fled Syria. But other countries weren’t accommodating all of them, and donations were majorly lacking. Politicians and the general public had this data, but people weren’t acting on the data. This is because viewing data engages the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain that is analytical but non-emotional, which makes one less likely to care or act. One day a tragic photo of a 3-year-old boy named Alan showed up online with a story: Alan’s lifeless body had washed ashore after his family took desperate measures to take an overcrowded, inflatable boat to safety. Alan had family in Canada eager to receive him, but a paperwork glitch denied him entry. Within 24 hours of this photo’s publication, donations for the refugees increased by 750%, Canada reconsidered its immigration paperwork, and countries stepped up to take in more refugees.

People are overwhelmed and unlikely to connect with data, whereas a personal story will move them. When people only knew the Syrian refugee data, they wouldn’t act. If people only knew Alan’s story but thought it was an isolated event, they wouldn’t have the direction to act. But it’s the data plus the story that are so powerful together. Data is important as evidence but must be humanized with story to get people to move.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I am most active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram but have additional social media listed at www.jennyrankin.com/press#social.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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