The Secrets of Epic Storytelling Through Data

Paul Petrone, Editor in Chief of the LinkedIn Learning blog, shares why data can’t succeed without storytelling skills

July 23, 2018

Epic Storytelling

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from our latest Sophisticated Marketer's Quarterly Magazine: Issue 3. Get your free print copy here!

In an increasingly noisy digital world, stories are perhaps our most important technology. That’s certainly the view of Paul Petrone, Editor in Chief of the LinkedIn Learning blog. He explains how his particular approach to storytelling evolved, and why a world of data and fake news makes storytelling skills more important – not less.

An Interview with Paul Petrone, Editor in Chief of the LinkedIn Learning blog

Alex Rynne: At Stanford University, they found that statistics combined with stories have a retention rate of 65–70%. That’s insane. How do you think storytelling helps with learning?

Paul Petrone: We get tons of stats thrown at us each day, and I forget them immediately. And yet there are stories from my youth I still think of and am inspired by.

Data is great because it legitimizes what you say, so it’s real news instead of #FakeNews. But, to bring that data to the next level, you need to combine it with a story. The marketing we’ve personally tested that combines both data and storytelling has been by far the most effective.

The bottom line is this: storytelling without data is fluff. Data without storytelling is forgettable. Data with storytelling is epic.

Rynne: How can marketers tell more effective stories to facilitate learning?

Petrone: The biggest mistake marketers make is they write the story ahead of time, as opposed to letting the story come to them.

I’ll often see “data-backed” ebooks, for example, where data and stories are used to backup a pointof-view the marketer already held. That’s the exact wrong approach.

Instead, do the opposite. Get the data first to understand the trends, but even then, really listen when collecting real-life stories from the field. From that, you can tell authentic stories that’ll resonate with your audience, as opposed to merely preaching your value proposition at them.

Storytelling without data is fluff. Data without storytelling is forgettable. Data with storytelling is epic.

Rynne: What are your favorite LinkedIn Learning courses that do a good job of storytelling? Any particularly memorable narratives?

Petrone: My favorite LinkedIn Learning courses are anything by Elizabeth and Lisa Earle McLeod. They do a great job of teaching through stories.

For example, they have a great course on coaching employees through difficult times. But rather than just tell, they show with real-life scenarios of what those coaching conversations look like.

To me, even though they aren’t marketing courses, marketers can learn a lot from them, as they do a great job of combining data with storytelling. If you are looking for a marketing-specific course, I’d recommend Jonah Berger’s excellent course on Viral Marketing (plus, it’s free). 

Rynne: What’s your favorite use of storytelling in B2B campaigns?

Petrone: There was one that LinkedIn Talent Solutions did on the importance of getting referrals when hiring. They had all this data on why referrals were great. However, rather than hit people with all that data, they told stories of eight companies that had strong referral programs and how that helped transform those companies. They interviewed recruiters, who spoke authentically about how referrals not only make their lives easier, but also foster more of a community by turning all employees into quasi-recruiters.

To me, it was a great example of combining both data and storytelling to create brilliant marketing.

Rynne: Are stories our most important technology?

Petrone: Sometimes, people use tech simply because it’s really great. Google search, for example, beat out their many competitors in my opinion because it simply worked better than Yahoo! or the thousands of other search engines.

But, many times that simply isn’t the case. For example, Budweiser is probably not the best-tasting beer in America or even the cheapest beer in America, and yet it is the most popular. Why?

A big reason is the story their marketers tell through the brand. Budweiser represents rugged American individualism — the label reflects that, the commercials reflect that. And sales are strong because of it.

Their advantage isn’t necessarily that they make better beer than Coors or Miller or the thousands of labels out there, but that they are better storytellers.

Rynne: How do you tell the LinkedIn Learning story through your own marketing?

Petrone: LinkedIn Learning is all about combining data and world-class content to provide the world’s best learning experience. Our goal in marketing is to reflect that.

That means bringing our exclusive data and our world-class content together to form actionable insights for the average professional. For example, we recently did a campaign where we used LinkedIn data to find the most in-demand skills in the world right now and matched those skills with our courses. It was a huge success because it helped people do their job. It provided real value. That campaign could have a storytelling aspect as well. For example, how does it feel to learn a new skill, which helps you do your job better? What effect does that have on yourself, your company and your family? Has it made you feel more empowered, more confident? Those are the stories we are hungry to tell moving forward and they will help bring our marketing to the next level.

Rynne: What was your favorite bedtime story growing up?

Petrone: My older brother John is the best storyteller I’ve ever been around. When I was young, I wasn’t allowed to watch the movie The Terminator because it was Rated R. I shared a room with my brother and, each night, he would tell me stories about The Terminator – most of which weren’t actually in the movie, he just made them up himself.

I loved it. To me, The Terminator was the coolest thing in the world, because of the stories my brother told about it. All I wanted at that time was to get a Terminator action figure, so I could play with it and recreate my own stories.

The takeaway? Invest in a great storyteller. My brother marketed The Terminator better to me than any piece of data ever could. Today, I still remember those stories – and The Terminator remains one of my favorite movies.

Discover Paul’s LinkedIn Learning recommendation for yourself. Search for courses from Jonah Berger and Elizabeth and Lisa Earle McLeod at lnkd.in/linkedin-learning.

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