“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”
– Muriel Rukeyser
Data is everywhere, and increasingly, business, government and even non-profits are expected to be “data-driven”. There seems to be a common assumption that because the data exists, we will use it to inform our decisions and change our behavior. That may be true of analysts, but for the rest of us, data isn’t meaningful by default. We need to understand the real-world context and implications of the data. In other words, we need data to be woven into a story.
This article explores why and how telling a story makes data more memorable and persuasive, whether you’re communicating to the office, the boardroom or the wider public.
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.
People have always told stories. That’s partly because, as a species, we are better at remembering stories than hard facts and figures.
Consider what you remember of Ancient Egypt from history class — most likely its the story of Cleopatra that comes to mind rather than dates and statistics of her rule.
Research shows that stories give people an emotional frame of reference with which to understand new information, which helps the story “stick”.
The strength of this human trait is remarkable. One study found that just 5% of an audience listening to a presentation will remember statistics, while 63% of the audience will remember the story.
If you want your audience to remember what you tell them about your data, tell them a story.
Once upon a time, it was assumed that we use the “rational brain” to make decisions. More recently, research by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio and others, has turned that assumption on its head.
Damasio studied people with damage in the part of the brain where emotions are produced. His subjects seemed normal, except that they couldn’t feel emotions, and one other thing — they couldn’t make decisions. They could weigh up the pros and cons for one decision over another, but they found it hard to actually make a choice. This groundbreaking finding suggests its actually the emotional part of the brain that guides our decisions — we rationalise our decisions after the fact.
Your audience is unlikely to change their mind, or their behavior, unless they feel they want to. For this reason, stories are powerful motivators, inspiring excitement, outrage, empathy and other emotions that drive our decisions.
When data and stories are used together, they resonate with audiences on both an intellectual and emotional level.
Stanford University Professor of Marketing Jennifer L. Aaker, Persuasion and the Power of Story
When presenting data, the goal is most often to inform or to persuade the audience. So it’s important that the audience understands what the data means, remembers it, and ultimately, feels compelled to act. Storytelling not only makes data more interesting, it can lend data the emotional power to influence and inspire our audience.
Data storytelling is particularly effective because it employs both reason and emotion, making it easier for your audience to absorb your message, remember it, and be persuaded by it. For this reason, data storytelling has huge potential to help deliver on the promise of data to build smarter organisations.