Stories By Numbers? 8 Ways To Turn Data Into Compelling Tales

May 23, 2015

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Editor's Note: This post originally appeared on the LinkedIn Marketing Solutions - EMEA blog.

In my first Adventures in Storytelling blog, I posed the question whether numbers could ever take on the power of stories, whether we could infuse research and analytics with the creative tension that characterizes a great tale, whether we can integrate the skills we learned at school in English with the principles we were taught in Mathematics. After all, as this Princeton University paper on neural coupling explains, the advantage of storytelling isn’t just that your facts are more memorable; when a listener relates to your story, their brain starts to synchronise with your own. That’s a powerful asset for any researcher trying to engage an audience with what they should do next.

I’ve been asked plenty of times since what the end to my own story is: Can we tell better stories through numbers – and how exactly do we go about doing it? So admitting that I left the last piece on a bit of a cliffhanger (and wary that sequels are rarely as good as the original), here’s my follow up – 8 principles for turning your data into better stories:

8 Principles For Turning Your Data Into Better Stories:

1. Start with the ending

As Jean-Luc Goddard once said “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”. This is just as true when it comes to data: and it’s not just true of how you present it, but how you think about the research process that generates it. Andreasen coined the concept of “backwards market research” in 1985; visualising the ideal outcome, the final charts and tables and the actionable results you want to see. It’s a skill that ensures your research process is focused and fine-tuned, but it also infuses it with creative tension– and casts all of the numbers that emerge in a more meaningful light. Do they support your initial hypothesis – or not? If they’re not what you expected to see, what do they mean? Starting with the ending will help you to establish which data matters and which doesn’t – and it will make it far easier to communicate why it matters to your audience.

2. Don’t let (irrelevant) facts get in the way

This one sounds like strange advice from a researcher – but it gets to the heart of a flaw in research reporting the world over. As John Le Carré once put it, “the cat sat on the mat” is not a story, but “the cat sat on the dog’s mat” is. What’s the difference? One is simply describing a fact with no meaning; the other is putting a fact in a context that you can sense is important, that is clearly part of a bigger story. Around 20% of the data in any study falls into this category – relevant to your story. And you guessed it, that 20% holds 80% of the meaning in your research report. Focus on these findings to bring your story to the surface.

3. Use the active voice

Stories have narrative drive. They don’t just describe an unchanging situation; they move things forward and compel you to want to know what happens. The situations that research describes are also inherently dynamic, but the language used to describe them often isn’t. Writing in the active voice gives your work greater energy and directness, both of which keep your audience engaged.

4. Tighten up your writing and cut unnecessary words

One of the great advantages of using the active voice is to make your writing less wordy. But there’s no need to stop there. Researchers tend to confuse getting rid of redundant words with dumbing down or oversimplifying content. They’re wrong. Concise writing has greater impact and helps the reader understand what you have to say. It cuts out waffle – and sends a signal that your content has value. If something needs lots of words in order to sound meaningful then it probably shouldn’t be in your story.

5. Spice up facts with opinion

All researchers agree that it’s important to distinguish fact from opinion; but far too many conclude that the purpose of doing so is to get rid of the opinion. Nothing should be further from the case. Opinion adds great value for clients because it focuses on the future rather than the past – and the future is what they are really interested in. Don’t be afraid to put your informed and intelligent judgment into the story that you tell. It’s the fusion of this with the research results and client needs that turn insight into actionable recommendations.

6. Use the correct tense

A good data-led story combines description of the past with interpretations of current meaning and judgments about the future. To make each of these story elements as clear and compelling as possible, it’s important to use the appropriate tense for each (sound simple? You’d be amazed how many people fail to do so). Describe your methodology and findings in the past tense; make assertions about the world as it stands in the present tense; and describe what you believe about the future confidently, in the future tense. Try to reserve the less certain conditional tense (could, should, would) for recommendations rather than hedging your bets.

7. Revise and edit

Once you have written your story, put it down, walk away and let your subconscious take over. As John Cleese once said; “…a lot of my best work seemed to come as a result of my unconscious working on things when I wasn’t really attending to them.” When you re-read it, you’ll start to notice the problems. Fix them and repeat because your first draft is rarely good enough.

8. The summary sense check

If you need to set aside half a day to write the summary for your research report then that can only mean one thing: your story isn’t coming through strongly enough. When there’s a clear, purposeful story woven through your narrative a concise summary should pretty much write itself. That’s good news for the author – and great news for those reading the story.

The science bit

Stories aren’t just a snazzy way of presenting research; they should be central to the whole purpose of it. Research exists to turn information into stories that inspire it with meaning and enable you or your client to make informed decisions – to choose what happens next. Such stories are what our brains are primed to respond to – and what they are hungry to build memories around. From a psychological point of view, our mental episodic memory structures are well developed for remembering and integrating complex episodic material. In other words, we remember episodes; we remember stories. That’s what quality research delivers.

Ready to tell your own story? Learn how to use LinkedIn's professional publishing platform to build and redefine brand perception.

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