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How To Tell Great Stories With Data

A few years ago I was given valuable feedback from my boss. He had asked me to analyze the pros and cons of a potential acquisition for our company. The project was complex and the financial stakes were high. Being fairly junior at the company, I didn’t want to screw this one up. I immersed myself in the project for a full week, and left no number unchecked. At the end of the week, I gave the report to my boss, carefully taking him through all the details of my analysis. He listened courteously until I was finished. Then he said, “Sam, at some point it’s not about what you say but how you say it.” He then explained to me that while my analysis was good, my report had a critical flaw. It lacked a story.

While I didn’t like this feedback at the time, I have come to greatly appreciate it. Since that project, I’ve observed almost daily that data-driven reports don’t get very far in organizations unless there is a great story to go along with them. This is because stories have some enviable qualities that data will never have. For example:

Data is cold; stories are warm

Data speaks to the brain; stories speak to the heart

Data is boring; stories are engaging

Data is forgettable; stories are memorable

Data proves; stories persuade

Don’t get me wrong, using data is critical in corporations today. The problem is that data often plays a leading role in business conversations when it should play the supporting one. The starring role should always be held by the story. And data, like a dutiful servant, should exist to support the story one is trying to tell.

Telling great stories with data is a fundamental skill of successful employees. These storytellers learn how to take raw data and turn it into something compelling and memorable. They stand in stark contrast to “data tellers”—those employees that retrieve data and regurgitate it to their bosses without any thinking or insight, and then wonder why their ideas aren’t implemented or no one remembers what they say.

Anyone can learn this vital corporate skill. While I certainly haven’t mastered it, I have deliberately worked to improve my abilities in this area. I’ve found the following guidelines to be very helpful.

Story First; Data Second: Before analyzing a single data point, sit down and create the story you are trying to tell. Use your brain and gut to develop some hypotheses and then ask yourself the facts you need to find in order to prove or disprove them. Unless you enjoy wasting time, never jump into the data with the hope that it will do your job and develop a story for you. Create the story first using your intuition and see if the data supports it. If you do this and find that the data doesn’t support your story, then rethink your story and try again. But always start with your story. It will save you hours of time to ensure that you have a cohesive argument every time.

Make the Data Real: Data and facts are cold and dry. Warm them up by making them real for people. For example, rather than tell people that 33% of American children are malnourished, tell them to think of the kids in their neighborhood. Then tell them that one in three of those kids they know is likely feeling really hungry right now. Or, rather than talk about how unemployment is at an all-time high, talk about your brother-in-law who has been out of a job for six months.

Set the Stage: When you begin your presentation, provide some background for your audience. This could be as simple as, “The purpose of me calling this meeting together is to talk to you about how we will grow sales by 10% this year.” Or it can be a little more in depth: “I called this meeting to discuss how we will grow sales by 10% this year. Our CEO has given us this mandate and I have spent the last 2 weeks figuring out how we will accomplish this. I feel good about the conclusions that I’ve drawn, and I want to walk you all through it now.” You decide how much context you give them, but the key is that you take control of the story by giving them a little context and background. This is much more effective than starting your presentation by spewing data at your audience.

Keep the Data Simple: Have as many backup charts as you want, but when you are telling your story, keep the data very simple. People generally don’t want to dig deep into the numbers; they just want to know that you’ve done your research. Give them a few compelling facts that they can write home about and then call it good.

Three Things: I find that stories seem more digestible when there are three key points that people have to remember. 2 and 4 are acceptable as well, but remember that when you are presenting data, there is only so much that your audience can handle. In my opinion, three is the magical number that will keep people tracking to what you are saying without getting overwhelmed.

These things have greatly improved my ability to tell stories with data. If you decide to try one or all of these things, leave a comment or shoot me a note to tell me about it. I'd love to hear how it worked for you.


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