Category Archives: storytelling

Stories & science; belief and knowledge

noun_1011170We talk about Storytelling a lot at TLF.

Finding ways to tell better, more compelling, more persuasive stories is essential if you want to achieve difficult, long term, goals such as culture change or improved Customer Experience.

Good stories touch people emotionally, link their day to day decisions with an outcome that means something to them, and persuade them to make change happen.

Stories are deceiving

But stories can also be dangerous. We find narratives so compelling that we rush to invent stories to explain any fact, statistic, or research finding. Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls this the “Narrative Fallacy”, and data science expert Kaiser Fung reserves a whole category of posts on his blog for what he calls “Story Time“.

Our ability to weave simple explanations for complex, often random, series of events means that the stories we tell ourselves have a feel of inevitability, in hindsight. As Daniel Kahneman suggests in the classic “Thinking, Fast and Slow“:

“…the ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance.”

So, if making up stories to account for the data we have is flawed, how do we make sense of the world? Science.

Science (a word derived from the Latin scire, “to know”), has developed over centuries as a systematic method for learning about the world. The scientific method is designed to minimise the impact of our cognitive biases, from making up stories to only noticing things which confirm our beliefs.

Rigorous analysis is the only way to learn robust truths about the world. Every time you (or someone else) come up with an explanation, challenge yourself by asking how you know. If your story is robust, you should have been expecting the finding before you saw it.

Science to learn, stories to teach

Should we give up on storytelling, given that we’re so prone to be misled by it?

Absolutely not. Once we have learned a fundamental truth about the world (through science), we need to communicate that insight to other people. We need to get their attention, persuade them to believe us, and convince them to change what they do.

Too often, in society and in organisations, we see arguments won by people with a simple story over those trying to explain a much more complicated truth. If we want to learn about the world, and use that knowledge to make better decisions, we need to learn to tell better stories with a firm foundation of science at their heart.

On my Data Presentation and Infographics workshop I use this graphic to summarise what I believe the job to be:
Triangle

We need the care and objectivity of a scientist to learn important truths, the flair of a graphic designer to engage people’s attention, and the craft of a storyteller to communicate and persuade people to change.

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Stories are about change

noun_2005Storytelling is a favourite topic of mine.

On our storytelling briefing I go through a whole load of different ways in which organisations can use customer insight to communicate more effectively with their customers and staff.

I also try to wear a storyteller’s hat when I’m finding the best way to visualise and present data.

Why is it so effective?

There’s lots of evidence for the benefits of story. Story forces you to articulate why and how a particular course of action will work. It increases the emotional impact of research and brings customers to life. Those are important strengths, but the big one is that stories are the best way to achieve change.

Stories are all about change.

Duarte‘s useful model for the shape of an effective story makes crystal clear how fundamental change is to the argument that a storyteller is making. A good story shows our audience a future they want to achieve, contrasts that with the status quo, and shows them how to get from here to there.

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Stories in fiction describe change, stories in business drive change.

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Telling the story with data

Triangle

This is a diagram from my course about data presentation and infographics.

I use it as a starting point to discuss the skills you need to do the job well, summarised as “telling a compelling story with integrity”.

The idea of the diagram is that too much or too little of any of the three axes tends to be a bad thing.

For instance, too heavy on the “statistician” axis might mean that your charts are accurate and robust, but impenetrable to many people. Too light on the same axis, and you might be committing basic analytical mistakes (perhaps ignoring random measurement error).

It’s a rare person who embodies all of those skills to a truly expert level, which is one reason the best infographics often involve a team of people.

 

Finding your audience

It isn’t necessarily a case of shooting for the middle of the triangle. There’s a zone of acceptable variation around the middle in which competent and engaging data storytelling happens.

What’s appropriate for a scientific publication is not appropriate for your board, or for frontline staff. It’s all about getting the balance right for your audience.

Obvious? Yes, but it’s worth thinking about what it means in practice. Which “rules” of data storytelling are unbreakable, and which need to be tailored according to your audience?

 

How much do we know about what works?

Stephen Few takes a dim view of infographics which he sees as prioritising shallow gimmicks over effective visual communication. David McCandless has been on the receiving end of severe critiques.

He also points out that more work needs to be done to test which graphic forms are most effective, rather than relying on opinion. I agree – we can’t begin to pretend we’re working in a serious field until we approach these questions scientifically.

Robert Kosara has published interesting work showing that pie charts, much derided by experts, are more effective than we thought.

But is communication our only aim? Not always.

 

Telling the story

The science of which data graphics work most effectively is only part of the equation. The best graphic in the world is wasted if no one looks at it.

Let’s go back to the idea of storytelling.

What makes a story? Dave Trott, in one of his excellent blog posts, quotes Steven Pressfield’s simple version. A story consists of Hook, Build, and Payoff.

If we apply that to data storytelling I think it makes it easier for us to choose our place in the triangle.

  • Hook: we need to capture the attention of our audience, with something relevant and/or fascinating. This is where McCandless excels.
  • Build: there should be enough depth to reward engagement with the data.
  • Payoff: there’s got to be a reason for looking. What am I going to do differently as a result of spending time with this data?

 

 

 

 

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Insight & internal comms: a match made in heaven

noun_marriage_192896Every internal communications team I know is crying out for content.

Every customer insight team I know is crying out for airtime and tools to get their messages to staff.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

So why do we not see more use of customer (and employee) insight in internal comms? I think the main problem is that we, as insight people, have tended to be boring.

We know there’s loads of brilliant stuff in our 60 slides of bar charts, so we send the slide pack off to internal comms. Then we’re a bit hurt they don’t do anything with it.

Bar charts are boring.

Stories are interesting.

But stories are not something that simply emerge from talking to customers. What distinguishes a story is not that it is human (although that’s important), but that it has a point.

To turn insight into effective comms you need to become a storyteller. That means you have to have the courage to craft a story for internal comms to tell, or you could work with them to craft a story together.

Figure out who your audience is, what interests them, and how your insight can change that for the better.

Let customers tell their stories, and flag up the turning points that sent their narratives in different directions.

Stories are told, not found.

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