Tell Me a Story: Why Data Analysts Must Be Storytellers, Too

Data alone won't make an analyst's work memorable or actionable in the eyes of a business executive. A story puts it into perspective.

Meta S. Brown, Business Analytics Consultant

March 4, 2015

4 Min Read
Credit: Wikimedia

Nothing compares to a fresh apricot at the peak of the season. Think of the color, the flavor, the sweet, sticky, delicious juice that drips down your hands as you eat!

The harvest is both generous and fleeting. We can’t always have perfect fresh fruit, so we preserve it as best we can. We dry, we freeze, we can it, but when it comes time to fill the plate, it’s hard to recreate more than a pale memory of that fresh experience.

When it comes to data, every day can be like the harvest. It’s overwhelming! Yet behind a flood of data lies a million or more individual and meaningful human experiences.

How can data analysts help decision makers understand? Reports don’t work. Charts don’t work. At least, they don’t work alone. But you can bring freshness and humanity to your data through storytelling.

Q: Why don’t executives listen to data analysts?

A: Executives…

  • Can’t understand us

  • Can’t remember what we say

  • Can’t make a personal connection to the data

  • Can’t relate the data to business context

The problem is that data analysts present information in ways that mean little to those outside our profession. But everyone understands a good story.

Good data stories are memorable. In my storytelling workshops, I often invite someone to tell a story about second grade. With a moment’s thought, a story always comes to mind. But ask about a fact learned in second grade, and the response is dead silence. We remember stories better than facts.

We understand and remember stories because that’s what our brains were made to do. In the paper, Our Brains are Wired for Stories, Kristopher Bough explains, “We do not easily remember what others have said unless it is in the form of story.” (He also explains the neuroanatomy and cognitive science behind that).

Good data stories are understandable. Reports full of tables, graphs, and text seem dry, dull, and meaningless unless we can relate them to something of personal importance. Stories anchor our thinking so that we can see the significance of reporting details.

Good data stories are personal.People are far more interested in what you say when the information is tied to personal experience. One of my storytelling workshop attendees told a story that I could feel in the pit of my stomach. He told us:

  • “Rashpal was a loyal and satisfied user of a common business software product. A new version came out and Rashpal installed it right away; he wanted to be one of the first to try it out. But when he started the new version of his software, everything was gone! He couldn’t see his work. He couldn’t figure out how to do anything. Rashpal was frustrated, very frustrated. In a matter of seconds, a loyal fan of the product become an angry detractor.”

This story was easy to understand. I had tried the same version of the same product that Rashpal had used, and I hadn’t liked it. Everyone has had the experience of trying a new version of an old product and feeling that it just wasn’t as good as the old one.

The analyst had plenty of data to indicate that Rashpal’s experience was a common one. But by opening with the story instead of facts and figures, he created a striking image in the listener’s mind. A good story has far more impact than any mere fact. And, whether the listener believed the story or not, the story would motivate that listener to stay involved while the analyst presented more details about the data behind it.

Good data stories are contextual. You could state that a page on your website has a high bounce rate, that the page is part of the checkout process, and that the problem is due to a design flaw in the form. Or, you could share the story of Ron, who saw your mobile ad and loved it. Ron wanted to make a purchase right away. He clicked the “Buy” button, and tried to fill in the form, but couldn’t. He reloaded the page again and again, but couldn’t get it to work. Ron gave up without buying from you. Sharing Ron’s story helps listeners understand why the design problem matters, how it affects your customers, and what it may mean to you.

A good data story is not fluff, exaggeration or fiction. It’s information that you know to be true, because your data tells you so. Data storytelling allows for creativity in the way you bring the facts to life, but not the facts themselves.

Good data storytelling helps decision makers interpret and remember your results, and the better they understand, the greater the motivation to take action. Please share your stories here!

Has storytelling helped you communicate your analytics discoveries?

About the Author(s)

Meta S. Brown

Business Analytics Consultant

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