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Learning from those you train

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It was my privilege last week to train a baker’s dozen of some the brightest and best in market research. A new client for me, a household name well beyond the industry, and in a sector I’m really only now just starting to explore. As I have before with market researchers, I found a very receptive audience for my central message, that Analytics + Storytelling = Influence. It truly is why they do what they do, and if they can get help doing it better, they’re all eyes and ears and rapt attention.

In recent weeks – and now for months and years to come – I’ve become a man on a mission. As a data-driven storyteller with three decades’ experience helping businesses craft stories supported by statistics, I had the urge last year to codify my way of working. And so was born Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Databrought into the world back in April by the good midwives of Routledge.

The book was written with training in mind, and there are a number of intensely practical exercises in each topic chapter designed to help anyone in the knowledge economy to tell better data-driven stories. And as practice makes perfect, repeating an exercise both before and after learning gives real-time experience of improvement in action, over the course of just a few hours.

One of my favourite exercises to observe learning in action is the elevator pitch. As homework before training, I ask delegates to find some data, numbers, or statistics which they can use to write an elevator pitch. It can be about a favourite client, their own company, or a favourite pastime. I then give them ten minutes to write 50-80 words, two to four sentences, that include a number or numbers, and then they share what they’ve written with the group.

After two readings, I give an instant critique – and usually plenty of encouragement – and they repeat the exercise later in the session, once or maybe twice. Editing down to just two sentences. Just one. And sometimes even to a single phrase, starting with a verbal noun (“Changing …” etc.).

One of the great privileges of training in any subject area is that, designed right, the trainer can learn and delight as much from what delegates do as vice versa. Now I’m running more and more Narrative by Numbers sessions, here are eight great rules of thumb for using data and statistics in powerful and compelling elevator pitches. Eight rules that keep on popping up in training sessions.

  1. Don’t use too many numbers, particularly in an elevator pitch. Aim for the killer statistic, and heed the advice of Dorothy Parker on martinis: “I like to have a martini, / One or two at the very most. / After three I’m under the table, / after four I’m under my host.” And never forget the chilling statistic that brothers Chip and Dan Heath advance in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die: “After a presentation, 63% of attendees remember stories. Only 5% remember statistics.” Very meta.
  2. If you use more than one number, use different types of numbers. Working memory gets easily crowded, and if an elevator pitch features – say – three or four percentages, they’ll all blur and meld into one and be confused. Instead, talk about – say – 13%, two in five, and three-quarters instead of 13%, 40%, and 75%.
  3. Verbalise your numbers. Say doubled, halved, or increased four-fold. Verbalised numbers have the power of action as well as the impact of being data-driven.
  4. Start your stories, abruptly, with a number; a sentence made up of just a number and a noun or verb it qualifies, rupturing the rules of “proper” English grammar for the sake of impact. And then go on to explain it. “200,000 tonnes. That’s the volume of coffee grounds thrown away in London each year.” This is intriguing, and the very opposite of providing tedious and expository back-stories.
  5. Harness the power of analogy; of examples from other worlds. “The NHS employs approaching one-and-a-half million people, more than live in Birmingham, Britain’s second biggest city”. With big numbers, give context.
  6. Wherever possible, don’t let your numbers be too big. City folks and multinational finance directors are fine with billions, but big billions are outwith most mortals’ reckoning. Yes, we can understand what billions are and mean, but they’re very hard to manage mentally because we count so few things in day-to-day life in billions. If something costs billions a year, divide it by 52 to give a weekly value. Rather like Vote Leave did with the £18bn gross contributions from the UK to the EU, to make “£350m a week”. Unlike BoJo, be sure to account for context and rebates, otherwise you’ll have the wrath of Sir David Norgrove, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority raining down on you as it did in this letter.

  1. Use the same number to qualify several things in the same elevator pitch. “Now you’re turning 30, we’re offering 30% off gym membership for the next 30 days, giving you monthly access to 30 different classes for the next 30 months”. That was a real example from an elegant elevator pitch I was served by a delegate last week. There’s real poetry in that.
  2. If the percentage you want to use is more than 90%, turn the story on its head. Talk about the single-figure percentages of people or companies that DON’T do what it is you’re advocating. “Just 7% of businesses believe they are completely GDPR-compliant”, say.

My primary motivation in writing the book was not actually to sell books, believe it or not. Of course I want to spread my message by people buying and reading the book, and it was super-gratifying to read in the feedback forms from my most recent session that 3/13 had already read the book before they came to the session.

But more than book sales, I wanted to have a very readable and credible manifesto that could help broaden my network, get me more speaker platforms, and build both my consultancy and training practices. In those objectives, Narrative by Numbershas been going great guns since several months before it was a physical reality.

Here I am, for instance, giving the keynote address at the Market Research Society’s inaugural Data Analytics conference back in February, a full eight weeks before even I had printed copies. I’ve since spoken to a dozen organisations – big banks, industry trade associations, and a wide variety of PR, marketing, and advertising businesses. And on Wednesday of this week coming, I’m part of the panel discussing “Big Data IRL: How to use data responsibly to drive business success” at The Ivy Club, thanks to Hanson Search. More here.

I’ve only started to tap the enthusiasm there is for guidance and training in this area. And what is proving more rewarding than I’d ever imagined is that I’m learning as much about data-driven storytelling from my trainees as I trust they are from me.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.

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