During the EU referendum campaign, Brexiteer Michael Gove scoffed that “people in this country have had enough of experts – with their acronyms”. Donald Trump’s attitude to evidence is entirely partisan and blinkered: if it supports his argument, he’s all for it, but if it undermines it, he immediately dubs it fake news. Just think of the way he turned the clock on climate change back decades when he unilaterally withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Accord. He – and Vladimir Putin like him – are clearly of the Newt Gingrich school of building an argument. The former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives once infamously said: “feelings are just as valid as facts”.
Like most of the rest of the post-Enlightenment world, I take a rather different position. I believe that data and evidence should not only be the starting points of debate. They should be the foundation stones of all the powerful and purposeful narratives we weave. People haven’t had enough of experts and facts – of course they haven’t. They may feel that politicians and crooked business leaders have a track record for what Disraeli and Mark Twain called “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. But that doesn’t mean that objective, independently-verified data and statistics shouldn’t be central to rhetoric, to storytelling, and to persuasion. Quite the contrary.
We live in a world with more data than ever, and the data stockpile is growing exponentially fast. Every type of organisation – private, public, and third sector – is surrounded by ever more data, presenting them with a delicious paradox. It has never been more challenging to make sense of the data that surrounds an organisation, and at the same time it has never been more possible to do so. By finding, analysing, and interpreting relevant data sets, organisations have the opportunity to make sense of their worlds and those they seek to influence like never before. They can understand the motivations, wants, and needs of their customers, their constituents, their patients. At the level of the population, and at the level of the individual. And I’m not talking Cambridge Analytica hokum, which has been an irritating and unhelpful distraction to proper use of data, to my co-podcasters on the Small Data Forum and to many others.
But stories that move people – narratives that persuade others to take action – don’t require just data. Numbers and statistics are the scaffolding or structure of impactful stories. But they need to be presented with emotion and humanity, set in the story structure that we humans instinctively seek out. The stories that travel the furthest and have the most impact are those that successfully blend the rational and the emotional. That appeal to head as much as the heart. That follow the universal equation of modern organisational storytelling, that “Analytics + Storytelling = Influence”.
In a nutshell, this is the argument of my book which Routledge were kind enough to publish in April of this year. Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data lays out six golden rules of data-driven storytelling. From “keep it simple – yet smart” to “find and use only relevant data”. From “avoid false positives” to “beware the Curse of Knowledge”. And – because data-driven storytelling is fundamentally about empathy, about putting yourself in the mind of those you seek to influence – from “know your audience” to “talk human”.
The book has opened doors that might have been closed to me before. Even before it became pages wrapped in cardboard – a physical reality distributed through the book trade – it’s provided me with platforms to share my views. I’ve worked most of my life in the marketing communications industry, and this year I’ve spoken at events organised by the Market Research Society, the Internet Advertising Bureau, the Public Relations & Communications Association, and the International Communications Consultancies Organisation. I’ve trained universities, games software companies, banks, PR companies, and market research firms.
As my inaugural Year of the Book draws near to its end, there are two gigs that fill me with particular pleasure, two events that would not have been possible without that blue papery-cardboardy thing. One is giving the keynote speech at the Media Research Group’s annual overseas conference in Bratislava. A better collection of media data-driven storytellers I cannot imagine, comprising market research companies, media agencies, and media owners.
The second is spending an intensive 24 hours in the company of the splendid team from Winton Centre for Risk & Evidence Communication from the University of Cambridge’s department of mathematics. For many years, I’ve been an active supporter of Sense About Science, an organisation set up in the wake of the Andrew Wakefield / MMR debacle, designed to have scientists report their research findings more responsibly (less sensationally or selectively) and also have the media write up the findings more responsibly. It was through Sense About Science that I first became aware of both the Winton Centre and its plain-speaking boss, Professor David Spiegelhalter.
Sense About Science, the Winton Centre, and me – we’re all pretty fed up with the Daily Mail (and others, but very often the Daily Mail) saying that cabbage both cures and causes cancer, while coffee both alleviates and exacerbates heart disease. The confusion – sometimes deliberate, often accidental or done through ignorance – of relative and absolute risk causes either completely unnecessary panic or else shocking complacency.
Whether talking about bacon sandwiches or middle-class binge drinkers, Professor Spiegelhalter has for many years spoken very publicly and clearly about the use of data and statistics in public life. Here he is back in 2011 explaining the absolute risk of bowel cancer in the population (5% or five people in a hundred) and the relative, increased risk for people eating a bacon sandwich a day for all of their lives (a 20% increased risk, meaning 1% of the population or one extra person).
So, when the Winton Centre announced earlier this year that it was looking for volunteers to be part of a workshop on communicating uncertainty in scientific and economic research, I leapt at the chance to offer my services to the workshop. And, to my immense delight, I discovered a couple of weeks ago that I was one of just 36 from among hundreds of applicants to be chosen for the workshop. I can’t wait.
My purpose as a storyteller is to help organisations sound like people and talk human. My purpose as a data-driven storyteller is enable them to use data and statistics to tell more powerful, more purposeful stories and persuade others to take action as a result. Going into the workshop later this month, it’s my intention to give of my all and share what I’ve learned in 30 years’ communications consultancy. But I’d wager London to a house brick that I’ll learn a huge amount from the others in the workshop – the modellers and researchers, the communicators and graphic designers, and of course the team from the Winton Centre.
As I say, I can’t wait. Watch this space for further blogs on the workshop.
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.