Facts Matter – But So Does the Narrative
Data has the power to influence decisions at every level of an organization. However, that influence doesn’t just happen; it’s proven over time. As a data professional for more than two decades, that fact becomes clearer to me with every passing day. Proving the influence of data and championing data in your organization requires context, and the best context is a compelling story.
Even if you’re an experienced data consultant, writer, or public speaker, crafting and delivering a compelling data story can be challenging. Finding a way to integrate the technical, analytical, and precise nature of data with the nuance, structure, and narrative of storytelling is a skill. But trying to communicate the influence data can have, without a narrative, is an uphill battle. So, what can we do to tell a good story?
Give the Story a Beginning, Middle, and End
A good story involves more than just a recitation of the facts – it requires structure, and it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This requires a narrative.
Your narrative requires characters (for example, the employees), a setting (the business or departments within), the plot (how the data is used), the conflict (what the challenges are), and the resolution (how beautiful life will be in the future). These elements allow the action to develop in a logical way that your audience can follow.
“Goldilocks and the Three Bears” could be told as follows:
A girl walked into a house when the three bears that lived there weren’t at home. She tasted their oatmeal, sat in their chairs, broke one of the chairs, and slept in their beds. The bears returned to find her asleep in one of the beds. She awoke. Alarmed, she escaped without further incident.
That’s not a compelling story. It’s merely a recitation of the facts, and no toddler would be satisfied by such a telling. Similarly, a dry recital of data facts won’t be particularly interesting to your executives, your clients, or your prospects. You have to hook the audience with an introduction to the story that demands their attention and defines the inherent tension that must be resolved. You must keep the story moving through its duration. And you must conclude it in a way that resolves the conflict, portraying a desirable future state.
One framework for designing the narrative is to think in these terms:
- Beginning: What is the organizational challenge that exists or existed?
- Middle: What was the pivotal moment that inspired action? How did we gather, process, analyze, and summarize data to try and address the challenge?
- End: What conclusions can we draw from the data? What actions does the data suggest could be taken to resolve the organizational challenge?
Tell One Story at a Time
When presenting a data story, decide on which story you’re going to tell – and stick to it! Sure, as data experts, we could give dozens of examples of all the ways we could be doing things better – or regale our audience with our day-in-day-out battle stories. Instead, find one story that supports your case and stick to it. Too often, I’ve watched meetings go sideways as the lead presenter switched stories halfway through. There are big problems with doing this!
First, it violates the idea of having a beginning, a middle, and an end to the story. By switching stories, suddenly there’s one story with a beginning, half a middle, and no end – and a completely different story with no beginning, half a middle, and maybe (if we’re lucky) an end on the way. This leaves your audience struggling to juggle all the information: they’re still trying to understand what the conclusion around the initial story might have been, and they’re trying to catch up on what’s going on in the new story.
How and why does this happen? Usually, it’s because there are many competing and compelling potential storylines, and either during the preparation of our presentation or during its delivery, we get more excited about one than another. But that excitement doesn’t – on its own – finish the story we originally started telling. Think how confused a child would be if Goldilocks had just found a chair that works for her, when suddenly the story became about the Big Bad Wolf damaging homes in another part of the neighborhood!
Keep asking yourself, is this the same story I started off telling? If the answer ever starts to be “no,” then gracefully back away from the new story and return to the one you originally started with. At a minimum, find a way to conclude the original storyline before proceeding to a new one.
Know Your Audience
“Goldilocks and the Three Bears” uses simple language that very young children can understand. It doesn’t use big words or complicated transitions. It doesn’t worry about repeating the same word. It isn’t afraid of short sentences. It uses language that is comfortable for the audience to hear and understand. It’s important to follow the same guideline when developing your data story. The language might differ when you tell it to your marketing operations team or your C-level executives.
Data, and its surrounding processes, can be an incredibly complex and challenging topic to discuss. As a result, there’s a tendency to try to overwhelm our audiences with technical jargon and inside references that demonstrate that – at a minimum – we know what we’re talking about. Choosing that type of language just gets in the way of the story you really want to tell. Using language that’s appropriate for your audience will help to convey your message in fewer words, and with less confusion.
For example, any of the following sentences conveys the same message:
- A thorough examination of the supplied data revealed that in excess of 96% of records exhibited at least one significant defect.
- We looked at the data and found that a huge majority of records had problems.
- This dataset has lots of issues.
Depending on the audience, any of these description may be appropriate. Choosing which to use requires an understanding of your audience: How much precision do they need? Is the additional detail going to be useful to them? Will you sound like you’re trying to show off with big words when you don’t need to?
Years ago, when I was working in radio, a mentor once told me, “Don’t say ‘Our meteorologist forecasts a 75% chance of precipitation after 2 p.m.’ when you can just say ‘It’s probably going to rain this afternoon.’”
As with any skill, getting data storytelling right doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice – and it takes a commitment to improvement. Take time to practice your delivery. Ensure that you’re comfortable with the language you use to discuss each part of the narrative; if you’re stumbling or tripping over words, consider using simpler language. Look for opportunities to rearrange the order of slides or talking points.
Practice in front of colleagues – make sure they feel like the narrative told a story. Ask them where they got hooked or began to lose interest. What parts of your delivery really resonated? Use that feedback to guide your next story.
A Good Story Can Lead to a Great Conclusion
A good data story can have tremendous impact on the way organizations make decisions and to what extent they succeed or fail. You can have the greatest technical argument for a data project, but without a well-crafted narrative, your initiative may never get off the ground. Dun & Bradstreet provides robust data enhancement to companies around the globe on a daily basis and stands ready to assist your company as well. I hope these tips on data storytelling help to bolster the “story” side.