Last week my team did a training with Cole Nussbaumer on how to more effectively tell stories with data (see Cole’s site at storytellingwithdata.com). The training was fantastic – not only covering many of the best practices of creating data visualizations, but in particular because Cole started out by having us picture our audience, capture our big idea in one sentence, and storyboard what we wanted to communicate. It got me thinking about story telling more generally. I frequently hear about the power of storytelling, and the importance of putting data in context if you want it to get used. Yet data are often presented without a story. It often goes something like this: passionate middle-level manager has vision for how to create change in her organization that could make things much better for people and lead to greater success for the organization. She gathers data to prove her point, puts together a presentation with graphs and bullet points, and pitches her idea to senior management. After a good meeting, in which senior leaders asks some thought-provoking questions, she is excited and looking forward to moving forward on the project. Days pass, however, with no follow up action. The organization continues on as before. Our heroine eventually leaves for greener pastures.
Sound familiar? I have seen this story unfold quite often, and have been the protagonist a few times myself. I think the moral of this story is that storytelling with data is harder than it sounds, but worth the effort to learn. Why? Because stories are powerful. There are some key ingredients all stories have. They have characters we can identify with, or love to hate. There is a plot, a drama with twists and turns. And an ending that leaves us feeling good, or with a moral. The more you care about the characters, the greater the drama or suspense, the more the story connects with your emotions. This helps it sink in, making it easier to remember. Our human culture started out as an oral tradition, and stories were the primary way we shared knowledge and how to apply that knowledge. They had to be engaging to be remembered. So if I want my data to be used for learning and action, I will get a lot farther if I embed it in a story, one that speaks to and engages my audience. Chip and Dan Heath also speak to this in their great book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. We humans are both rational and emotional creatures, and if you want to motivate people to action, you need to speak to both sides. Storytelling is a great way to tap in to the emotional part of us.
So why don’t we do it more inside our organizations? Maybe because our mental model of what it means to be a knowledge worker is only inclusive of our rational side. So our processes, habits, all the ways we show up for work every day focus on the rational – and exclude the emotional. Which means that when we get ready to make a business case for some idea, we open up a slide deck to make a presentation or a spreadsheet to make an ROI. We probably still need to do the ROI. But maybe if we turned the ROI into a story, with a plot and characters, we might be more effective at gaining support – or at least getting a definitive decision, so our story has a clear ending.
If any of you have had success building story telling into an organization, share your story with me – I would love to hear it.