How Storytelling Makes for More Effective Data Comprehension

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Click to learn more about author Bernard Brode.

Once upon a time, humans communicated meaning through stories. Epic tales of adventure and intrigue, memorable myths of heroes and their trials and travails — these were the parameters around which people framed their individual lives.

Today, it’s all about the numbers. From business to advertising and beyond, companies now rely heavily on data to illustrate facts and verify ideas. But with all this proliferation of data across every sphere of society, it is easy to lose track of the fact that behind each set of numbers is a narrative. In fact, being able to evoke the story behind the data is an essential Data Science skill.

Humans still love a good story, so the more advanced the data, the more relevant becomes the need for narrativization. Using traditional storytelling techniques, smart data analysts can share the human side of the charts and figures they are sharing.

In this article, we will explore several effective approaches to conjuring captivating human tales from sets of data and how these approaches can improve people’s ability to understand data.

Beginning, Middle, End

One of the main benefits of approaching data from a storytelling perspective is that it allows you to hone your information into a set structure. If you were telling a story about that time your holiday vacation plans went wildly awry, you would start at the beginning, allowing the story to proceed through the middle, the bulk of the action, and you would conclude your tale of travel-gone-wrong with a punchy ending.

Employing a similar structure when sharing data means that you should leave out any information that is irrelevant to the story you are trying to communicate. If your goal is to share a set of statistics related to identity theft prevention, you wouldn’t need to include data about how many people use computers in office buildings or what proportion of gender nonbinary-identifying people there are in Milwaukee. This is what we call irrelevant.

Sticking to a storytelling structure ensures that you will hone your data along specific relevant subjects and timelines, keeping your narrative streamlined and succinct.

Additionally, it is helpful to strategically structure your data narratives around specific goals. Think about who your audience is and focus attention on what message you want them to perceive. Do you want them to learn something specific from the data you present? Inspire them to take a particular action? The power of using storytelling to communicate data is that you can guide the meaning of the numbers towards a particular outcome, whether that is educational, sales-driven, or something else.

Emotional Impact

While some particularly adept data scientists may be able to derive an emotional or empathetic connection from a grid of numbers on a page, the majority of people will fail to recognize the emotional impact of particular data unless it is presented in an affecting way.

Using the power of storytelling to connect with people on an emotional level can inspire confidence in a company’s success or elicit an empathetic response that spurs audiences to donate time or money, change their living habits, or patronize a new charitable endeavor.

Let’s take an example that’s strange enough to see the effect of storytelling on an otherwise obscure statistic. RR: 1.30, 95 percent CI [1.05–1.65] represents the relationship between the percentage of fatal bird collisions and the glass area on buildings. This is an intrinsically sad story, especially for the birds, but if one undertook a presentation with the purpose of convincing commercial developers to consider anti-bird collision materials in windows, this statistic might not evoke much feeling.

Instead, a presenter would do well to illustrate the severity of this statistic while using storytelling techniques: Create memorable characters, include poignant moments, such as memories of birds chirping, present a problem and then present its relevant solution, then finish with a call to action that will inspire the audience. The datum is still central to the story, but it is surrounded by a narrative that more directly connects with the audience.

Make It Accessible

If you hope to reach as wide an audience as possible, speaking in plain language is a great way to communicate complicated concepts. By simplifying potentially daunting sets of data into accessible human terms, data storytelling allows more people to respond to the information being presented. After all, we humans love a good, relatable story.

While companies predictably expect their employees to analyze spreadsheets and mine numerical databases for pertinent information, adding a storytelling approach to the mix removes the often overwhelming element that can prevent employees from doing their jobs effectively. Approaching a set of data as a story to be told allows this scientific form of communication to be expressed in vernacular language.

Data storytelling is often taken to mean simply visualizing data. While colorful visualizations can make data more accessible, data storytelling takes the communication of data even further. When you can correctly identify and share the narrative behind a set of numbers, you connect with an audience at a deeper human level than simply informing them. Visuals definitely can help present patterns and trends, but when combined with a compelling narrative, an audience is more likely to engage and act. 

If no one can understand a data insight, or if it fails to elicit a strong response, don’t expect anyone to act on it, resulting in no change and no reason to collect the data in the first place. It is up to the storytelling prowess of data analysts to fully employ the art of data communication. Through the power of effective storytelling, the numbers can lead to real movement.

Happily Ever After…

While the need for numbers remains a powerful tool, the data means nothing unless people can work with it and understand it. By re-framing statistics in terms of story, you more effectively hone your goals, clarify the focus of your research, and draw on people’s emotional responses. Using familiar storytelling techniques and approaches, you can transform cold numbers on a table into a vibrant, inspiring, dynamic narrative. Consider that a good day’s work. 

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