Speed read: “Narrative by Numbers”
This post originally appeared on WARC – the World Advertising Research Center database run by Ascential, the owners of the Cannes Lions. This review of “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data” was written by Jem Fawcus, founder of the research agency Firefish. This is a link to the original article (may require subscription). Jem’s review also appeared in the last, printed edition of WARC’s ADMAP journal.
This book by Sam Knowles shows readers how to tell powerful and purposeful stories by using data and statistics as the foundations and provides the tools, permission, and confidence to use data with more impact.
There are some simple and effective rules of data-driven storytelling that help everyone tell more compelling, evidence-based stories, whoever they need to convince. Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data by Sam Knowles shows you how.
With more data around than ever before, it has never been more important to recognise that the data isn’t the story, but can be the foundation of impactful and influential storytelling and brand communication. Sam Knowles shows how to bring analytics and storytelling together in Narrative by Numbers.
Central ideas and arguments
Knowles has six principles, or rules, of data-driven storytelling that he presents in a clear and simple formula –theory, theory in practice, and case study. His reference points are wide, and his tales dart from ancient Greek philosophers, through Premier League managers, Mad Men and behavioural economics to Trump and Brexit.
Principles include ‘find and use only relevant data’, ‘avoid false positives’, and ‘beware the curse of knowledge’. Taken individually, the rules are a combination of common sense, statistical best practice, and narrative logic. But brought together in the same place – and focused on the challenges faced by those charged with building better brand stories – they assume a collective force. This is partly because of their simplicity, partly because of how they’re brought together through Knowles’ undoubted skills as a storyteller.
Across the knowledge economy, Knowles contends the two skills that everyone needs today are the ability to interrogate and make sense of data (analytics) and the ability to use the insights extracted from the data to convince others to take action (storytelling). His equation for 21st century communications is: Analytics + Storytelling = Influence.
It’s worth stressing that this is no statistics manual. Yes, the author knows his numbers and how to manipulate them, but he’s at pains to keep statistical theory to a minimum – both in his stories, and in the way he recommends others tell them.
Case studies and examples
Each of the first six chapters comes with a case study of what Knowles considers to be the most impactful recent campaigns that have been data-driven in their planning. These include: easyJet’s ‘How 20 years have flown’, Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’, and Spotify’s ‘Dear Person’.
Viewed through the lens of a corporate storyteller, these case studies bring the principles to life in an engaging manner. This is particularly true for stories that have been told many times before – such as Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ – as well as those that are less well known – including Tesco’s ‘Producers as Heroes’.
As a storyteller, Knowles uses anecdotes to pepper his narrative. His chapter urging brand storytellers to ‘keep it simple’ is dominated by a forensic analysis of the pros (and cons) of Vote Leave’s ‘£350m a week to the NHS’. The chapter on ‘the curse of knowledge’ tells an insider’s tale of teabag technology, and how the boffins behind PG Tips’ pyramid teabags translated theoretical thermofluid dynamics into ‘the teabag that thinks it’s a teapot’. He even manages to cast a trade ad from Spotify at the height of the 2017 ad misplacement scandal as a powerful example of what it means to ‘talk human’.
This book maintains that analytics and storytelling have been uncomfortable bedfellows for too long, thanks to two problems – one with education, the other with psychology. In education, STEM subjects have been isolated from the arts, with schoolchildren forced to specialise too early. In psychology, the popular misconception of left vs. right brain allocates employees to be one or the other but we’re all a blend of both.
By mashing these worlds together, Narrative by Numbers shows readers how to do what its title promises: tell powerful and purposeful stories by using data and statistics as the foundations. To keep them apart is artificial and counterproductive. The story told here might not resolve the challenge-cum-opportunity that data presents the marketing community, but it might give you ways into the brief you’re wrestling with today. Overall, it provides the tools, permission, and confidence to use data with more impact when crafting stories, and shows how powerful the combination can be.
This matters for every discipline in marketing communications. For my world, of human insight and how we share what we find out about human motivation and behaviour with our clients. For creative agencies, in building evidence-based stories. And for media agencies, in building compelling media strategies.
TITLE: Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful & Purposeful Stories with Data
AUTHOR: Sam Knowles
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sam Knowles is a corporate and brand storyteller. His purpose is to help companies sound like people.
BOOK SUMMARISED BY: Jem Fawcus, Group CEO of Firefish
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.