Why Data must Tell a Story


Posted March 27, 2019

"Companies must understand that data will be remembered only if presented in the right way,” says Think with Google, the market research and analysis offshoot of Google itself. “And often a slide, spreadsheet or graph is not the right way; a story is."
They’re right, but it may not be immediately apparent why a story would be “the right way” to communicate about data. With so much of today's business decisions driven by increasing amounts of data, it's worth diving into this idea: why can’t professionals just let the data speak for itself?

A story ensures the audience will understand the data correctly

Raw data is often intrinsically ambiguous, especially to a lay audience. The data scientists who produce and analyze the data may believe its meaning should be obvious, but it’s often anything but. Even when data has been sliced and diced and incorporated into nice-looking charts, audiences can still be left wondering what the point is. Worse, they may be interpreting the data differently or incorrectly. By crafting a story around the information, presenters and writers can make the data comprehensible, digestible, and meaningful.

Data requires context to compel action

Most organizations want to use their data to accomplish some goal. This is nothing new: Gartner recounts how famed nurse Florence Nightingale analyzed mortality rates from the Crimean War in the mid-19th century. She discovered that more soldiers died from preventable diseases than from combat, and she wanted to use that information to press the British government to invest in more sanitary conditions. “A data story starts out like any other story, with a beginning and a middle,” says James Richardson, Senior Director Analyst at Gartner. “However, the end should never be a fixed event, but rather a set of options or questions to trigger an action from the audience. Never forget that the goal of data storytelling is to encourage and energize critical thinking for business decisions.”

Only data with a story can move audiences

 As Stanford University Professor of Marketing Jennifer L. Aaker says, "When data and stories are used together, they resonate with audiences on both an intellectual and emotional level." That's because storytelling adds a layer of meaning to the data that personalizes it for the audience. That, in turn, helps facilitate memorability and deepens impact. In fact, it’s particularly important in today’s world, where – according to HubSpot – people are exposed to 5,000 marketing messages a day and spend 51% of their time managing information instead of acting on it.
Ultimately, a good story around the data cuts through the noise and helps audiences zero in on what’s important and meaningful to them – giving them the motivation needed to act. That said, crafting and communicating a story can present a challenge.
For help, check out our new course on “Data-Driven Storytelling.”
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 30 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.