How to tell stories using data and statistics
This Best Practice Guide to data storytelling originally appeared on WARC – the World Advertising Research Center database run by Ascential, the owners of the Cannes Lions. This is a link to the original article (may require subscription), written by Insight Agents’ Founder & MD, Sam Knowles, author of the 2018 book “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data”.
Details how to use data and statistics in story telling by providing six golden rules for success.
- It can be argued that the central equation underpinning success in the modern knowledge economy is: Analytics + Storytelling = Influence – since marketing is the best established of the “moving businesses”, the equation has particular resonance in marketing.
- Data-driven storytelling fundamentally an act of empathy, it requires the narrator to imagine what it’s like to be in the shoes and mindset of the audience.
- Six golden rules for data storytelling are: keep it simple, yet smart, find and use only relevant data, avoid false positives, beware the curse of knowledge, know your audience, and talk human.
- Statistics can power stories and numbers drive narratives, but only if as a storyteller you are able to resist the seductive lure of data to tell the story for you.
Need to know
- The storytelling potential of data transcends marketing. Data-driven storytelling offers potential right across business and society.
- Lightly peppering narratives with just a handful of well-chosen, killer statistics is the key to data-driven storytelling success.
- Use data in messaging with caution. The more information you deploy in arguments when you’re looking to convince others and to change people’s minds, the more likely the audience is to resist.
- If you put all available data into the mixer and look for relationships, you’ll find a connection and be tempted to conclude it’s important, when in fact it’s a false positive. Correlation is not causation, and connections in complex systems are very rarely caused by single factors.
- Don’t fall into the trap of using all data available. Brand storytellers should start with the reason or purpose they’re looking for data in the first place, and then choose the right data.
- Effective data-driven storytelling is fundamentally an act of empathy and human understanding. If you can use your research, data, and statistics to show you understand those you’re looking to influence, your story is much more likely to prove effective.
The world of brands and brand marketing is full of data. Media data, customer data, marketing performance data. Data that reveals customer behaviour, data that attributes marketing inputs to business performance outcomes, and data that explains who’s seen which commercials, where, and how often. The sheer volume of data in marketing means that practitioners are faced with a delicious paradox: it has never been more challenging to make sense of all the data that swirls around a brand, and at the same time it has never been more possible to do so.
The storytelling potential of data transcends marketing. Data-driven storytelling offers potential right across business and society. We are all, as writer Dan Pink says, in the “moving business”; the business of persuading others to take action and respond to the stories we tell. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has crystallised what we know about human decision-making. We make decisions fast using what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, based on our emotional response to situations and stimuli. We then justify our decisions using slower, more cognitive thought processes, using System 2 thinking. This is where the rationality of well-presented facts, numbers, and data has a critical role to play. The most powerful and influential stories are those that appeal to both our emotions and our intellect. It can be argued, therefore, that the central equation underpinning success in the modern knowledge economy is this:
Analytics + Storytelling = Influence.
Since marketing is the best established of the “moving businesses”, the equation has particular resonance in marketing.
Where to start
It’s a common misconception that using data and statistics to build more powerful and purposeful stories is about collecting and deploying as many numbers as you can to make your point. Yet social psychology 101 tells us that the more information you deploy in arguments when you’re looking to convince others to take a course of action – and particularly when you want to change people’s minds – the more likely the audience is to resist. In recent years, this has been labelled the “Project Fear” phenomenon, after the large number of data sources and data-driven scenarios the Remain campaign deployed in the run-up to the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK.
Using data and statistics as the rational underpinning to well-balanced, emotional, and above all human stories is much more about the judicious use of a small number of well-chosen data points to support an appeal or call to action. This makes data-driven storytelling fundamentally an act of empathy. It requires the narrator to imagine what it’s like to be in the shoes – the mind; the mindset – of the audience. And to realise what it feels like to be assaulted with number after data point after statistic. Browbeating the audience into submission not only doesn’t work; it’s actively counter-productive. Lightly peppering narratives with just a handful of well-chosen, killer statistics is the key to data-driven storytelling success.
1. Keep it simple – yet smart
When you’ve thoroughly researched and understood a brand, a market, or an issue, the temptation is to share your depth of knowledge and understanding. Market researchers are particularly guilty of wanting to show all their workings out – all the data that underpins the insights they bring to their clients – but they’re not the only breed of communicators who fail to keep it simple. Clients don’t pay agencies to take them through their workings out and justify why they reached the conclusions they reached. Consumers don’t want a complete rationale of the thinking – and increasingly the data, numbers, and statistics – that underpin a campaign. Both want to know what they should do in simple, simplified terms.
Keeping it simple – yet smart – avoids the storyteller’s no-no of exposition or backstory. How much better as a storyteller to have the audience hanging on every twist in the story and begging for more – the next storyline, the next episode – than to be bored into submission. Building simple yet smart stories with data as the rational underpinning isn’t necessarily easy to pull off. As Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill are all said to have said: “I would have written you a shorter letter but I didn’t have the time.”
2. Find and use only relevant data
There are so many different sources of data available to brands and companies today – their own data, third-party data, and publicly-available data sets – that it’s hard to choose data that is relevant to the story you’re looking to build. Brand data can include: first-party customer journey data, social and news media content, sales data, employee attitudes and behaviours. Third-party and publicly-available data can include: analyst commentary, Government demographic data, wealth and health data, weather data, academic and peer-reviewed research, crime statistics. You name it, it’s probably been counted, analysed, and shared online.
The trick in finding and using only relevant data is to identify and deploy the corner of Big Data – what the Small Data Forum podcast calls “little big data” – that’s relevant to the hypothesis you’re trying to test, and not just what happens to be available, convenient, or easy to use. Brand storytellers should use the principles set out by writer and TED Talk favourite, Simon Sinek, and “start with why”; start with the reason or purpose they’re looking for data in the first place, and then choose the right data.
3. Avoid false positives
The trouble with there being lots of potential data sets available to those looking to build brand narratives is that, when you put them together, you’re likely to find connections between different variables that are most likely meaningless. There’s every possibility that, if you’re looking to prove (rather than test) a hypothesis by putting all available data into the mixer and seeing where there might be a relationship, you’ll find something and be tempted to conclude you’ve found something important when in fact it’s a false positive. Remember the statistician’s acronym GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out.
As creatures, we’re hard-wired to look for relationships between variables – and the simpler the connection the better. We find it satisfying to conclude “the Gulf War was all about oil” or “Brexit was caused by unjustified fear of migrants”. Trouble is, complex connections in complex systems are very rarely caused by single factors. They’re also unlikely to be directly causally-connected. More often than not there’s a hidden third cause that you’ll have completely overlooked if you haven’t first kept it simple and second found and used only relevant data. Remember also that correlation is most definitely not causation.
4. Beware the Curse of Knowledge
When you know a lot about a subject, it’s very hard to imagine what it’s like not to know what you know. This is called the Curse of Knowledge. In his book The Sense of Style, Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker calls out academics, government officials, lawyers, financial advisors, and many of those in Big Pharma to be among the worst afflicted by this condition.
Like using too much or irrelevant data, the Curse of Knowledge is a significant turn-off for an audience. They feel talked down to – patronised – and ignorant in the face of an expert not prepared to come down to their level. Unsurprisingly, this approach – such a common failing among those who use data and statistics in their storytelling – is also counter-productive. It’s as unengaging as showing your workings out and convinces almost no one.
5. Know your audience
Effective data-driven storytelling is fundamentally an act of empathy and human understanding. If you can use your research, data, and statistics to show you understand those you’re looking to influence, your story is much more likely to prove effective. The dictionary definition of insight is “a profound or deep understanding of someone or something”, and if you can use data and statistics to get under the skin and into the mindset and motivations of your audience, they’re very much more likely to be receptive to your message. The case studies on Sport England and Dove, below, show how data-driven insights can spark social and market change.
6. Talk human
It’s a curious truism of corporate behaviour that many companies and brands – including some of the most successful B2C brands, and many B2B – speak a dialect that is very unlike the way that people talk. Those mandated to talk on behalf of a company – a growing pool of individuals in our social media age in which many more voices matter – often adopt a pretentious, jargon-rich way of speaking that explains little and convinces very few. When data and statistics are at the heart of the story you’re looking to build, this problem can be made worse. Corporate and brand storytellers should resist this temptation and use numbers to support not dominate their narratives. They should use a range of emotions and talk in that rarest of corporate dialects: human.
British Heart Foundation – Staying Alive
The British Heart Foundation wanted to raise awareness of how to perform hands-only CPR to restart someone’s heart if they’ve had a heart attack. Using black humour and football hard man Vinnie Jones – just featured as a gangland villain in Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels – the BHF managed to balance the rational with the emotional in a core campaign ad full of both information and entertainment. One of the most important pieces of information they needed to convey was the pace with which first aiders need to pump the chest of a heart attack victim, which is a couple of times every second. The planners on the BHF campaign found and used relevant data – that the Bee Gees’ disco classic Staying Alive is played at 110-120bpm – and used that as the incongruent (and memorable) soundtrack to Jones’ infomercial.
Sport England – This Girl Can
From early in secondary school onwards, right up until after retirement age, girls and women take part in less regular sport than boys and men; there truly is a gender exercise gap. Sport England wanted to bring about sustainable behaviour change in girls and women. Their research found that one of the main drags on women’s participation in sport was the fear of being judged by others – of sweating, make-up running, flushed cheeks, wearing unflattering Lycra, being seen out of control. 85% or women who don’t exercise say it’s for fear of being judged. And they were right – at least partially. 85% of those who see women exercising do judge them – and they do so entirely positively. They admire real women really exercising. It makes them think “I should do that!” Hence the real women that have featured in every one of the campaign’s three ads, a campaign which has led 1.6m more women to take up exercise. Sport England truly does know its audience.
Dove – Campaign for Real Beauty
Another brand that knows its audience and that found and used relevant data as the rational underpinning of its campaigning is Dove and its 15 year-old Campaign for Real Beauty. Back in the early 2000s, most beauty brand communication was having a negative impact on women’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth. Cross-cultural research by Dove found that in 20 countries – from Thailand to Brazil, from Russia to India – just 2% of the world’s women would use the word “beautiful” to describe themselves. This gave Dove the legitimacy to take on the beauty industry on behalf of real women, to celebrate ‘real types not stereotypes’, and to feature real women – real beauty – in their category-redefining campaign. Once the data-driven insight informed new product formulation, too, sustainable conversations with teens, tweens, and women turned into growing and sustained growth and profit for the Unilever brand.
In his introduction his book the The Signal & The Noise, Nate Silver observes: “The numbers have no way of speaking for themselves. We speak for them. We imbue them with meaning.” It’s a sentiment repeated by Cambridge statistics professor David Spiegelhalter in the introduction to his 2019 book, The Art of Statistics.
If you keep it simple yet smart with numbers, you’re off to a good narrative start. Find and use only meaningful statistics but avoid false positives when two data points or series seem to be connected. Beware the Curse of Knowledge, a fundamentally arrogant and inhuman way to share data and statistics that you know and understand but that your audience doesn’t. Data storytelling is at its heart an act of empathy that requires skilled practitioners to know their audience – to get inside their minds – and ultimately to talk that rarest of corporate and brand dialogues: human.
Statistics can power stories and numbers drive narratives. But only if as a storyteller you are able to resist the seductive lure of data to tell the story for you or – worst of all – be presented as the story itself.
Narrative by Numbers was published by Routledge in 2018. The book was reviewed by Jem Fawcus of Firefish in Admap.
The news article on WARC announcing this Best Practice Guide is here.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.