February 5, 2020

Use Data to Tell a Story

By Nancy Duarte, CEO, Durate, Inc.

Stop throwing numbers and statistics at prospects and customers. Plain old numbers just don’t tell enough of a story to persuade a prospect to buy.

While data can help organizations gain valuable insights into customers, employees, products, and markets, there is a limit to what databases and charts can do on their own as sales tools. Answers to organizational problems or opportunities don’t just organically spring from algorithms – they need communicators to translate the information into compelling stories. Data stories can ultimately bring about action and change.

Applying simple story techniques to data transforms the viewer’s level of understanding from simply making sense to also making meaning – and also drives real change.

The good news is that there are three story techniques to make data stick in the hearts and minds and inspire prospects to action.

1. Marvel at the Magnitude
The numbers we use often are on very large or very small scales that are hard for even the most data-savvy among us to comprehend. How can we envision how large or small something is that we can’t see with the naked eye?

Help your prospect visualize and comprehend data by comparing them to familiar things. For example, if sales of your product increased by a million units, convert that very large and hard-to-fathom number into something relatable. Perhaps that much product could fill the Empire State Building or half of Wrigley Field. Such concrete examples make the magnitude much clearer.

Additionally, don’t be afraid to express how you feel about the data. Let your emotions about the outcomes show. If you set a huge goal and the team reached it, marvel at their herculean effort by showing how you feel. You could gasp, clap, and use exclamatory phrases like, “wow,” “boom,” or “yowza.”

2. Humanize the Characters
Most organizational data sets wouldn’t exist without humans generating them. We are buying and selling goods, clicking on links, wearing devices, undergoing medical tests, and selling homes. Empathetically understanding the people whose actions generate your data will help you better communicate with them.

Identify the “hero” in your data. This could be a customer, user, or someone who is doing something positive and driving numbers up. Then identify the “adversary,” the party making it harder for the hero to achieve the goal. This could be a competitor, a CEO, a mindset, or anything that stands in the way.

Telling the story of a hero struggling against an adversary is classic storytelling. Getting an audience to root for the data hero and be willing to help resist the data adversary makes others much more likely to be invested in and motivated by the data story. For example, if the data shows your customer’s sales are lagging for one quarter, your hero (your customer) has gotten stuck in some way and something may be wrong. Your adversary could be your customer’s pricing model or supply chain. By suggesting ways to improve those, you communicate data in a way that makes your customer want to bust through the adversary of the data. When we personify data, we attach meaning to it and make it memorable.

3. Understand Data’s Emotional Arc
All stories have an emotional arc, and data stories are no different. Charts that represent business results are often reporting an organization’s ill fortune and good fortune over time, which is not so different from a character’s ill fortune and good fortune over the course of a story.

In 2016, a team of scientists at the University of Vermont tested a long-held theory of Kurt Vonnegut’s that story arcs could be mapped and tracked by analyzing the emotional arcs of 1,327 works of fiction. Their findings produced six prevalent emotional arcs: Three of them ended in good fortune; three of them ended in ill fortune. These arcs are entirely applicable to data as long as it’s clear whether or not your chart ends in good or ill fortune.

Armed with that knowledge, you can make the most of presenting findings to your audience. For example, if you have a data set that ends in good fortune, you can build suspense by slowly revealing the data and rejoicing in the outcome. If, conversely, the data set ends in ill fortune, you have two choices. You need to either motivate the audience to work hard to create reversal of fortune so the data reflects a happy ending or acknowledge honestly that the numbers are final, concede defeat, and help the prospect find closure.

Next time you’re thinking about how best to present your data, remember: Humans process meaning through storytelling. Use stories to frame data to make faster decisions and inspire others to take action by changing their hearts and minds.

Nancy Duarte is the CEO of Duarte, Inc.