Storytelling vs. Data

If content is King
Then data-driven content is 2nd in line to the throne
And some are predicting a coup
Do you remain loyal to the story or go with the numbers?
And which one will prevent you from wringing your hands
And wondering where all your customers went?

There's a great article by Alexandra Samuel in the Harvard Business Review that I recommend you check out called, 6 Ways To Tell Stories with Data Throughout the Customer Lifecycle.  She claims, "data-driven storytelling is poised to be the next big trend in content marketing."  And she goes on to give you 6 examples of companies who are using data effectively in their content marketing.

But I have a big ol' wet blue shag blanket to throw on the data parade.

(1st though, let me make it clear.  I'm not saying DON'T use data.  If you're a data-driven company you NEED to.  I'm just saying there are a couple of things you have to keep in mind if you want to do it well.)

Here's Why Straight Numbers Don't Work.

1.  Big numbers are hard to relate to.  So this thing you're talking about it affects 1 367 412 people, wow that sucks.  It sounds like way too big of a problem for me.  Or, it affects 1 367 412 people but there are 318 million in the US so it probably won't bother me right?  Either way big numbers are an excuse to say not my problem and mentally check out.

2.  Small numbers can be hard to relate to as well.  The average American household has 2.1 children.  WTF?  How do I have .1 of a child?  Am I stuck being 2 months pregnant forever?  Ok, just kidding, I understand how statistics work (although not my favourite class in university).  But do ALL your clients understand stats?  Is there an easier way to present the numbers?  You get my point right?

3.  If you need to put in raw numbers (and you will sometimes) for the love of Pete make it VISUAL.  Graph, chart, infographic.  Make it as colourful, SIMPLE, sexy and gorgeous as you can.

Again, for the record I'm not saying don't use data.  But your data should be used to support a compelling personal story that makes an emotional connection.  And here's why...

Daniel Kahneman says we don't learn from surprising statistics.  They don't change our worldview or behaviour.  He's the author and all 'round smart guy (like Nobel Prize winning smart) behind Thinking Fast and Slow

Yep, he found if you tell people surprising stats about human behaviour they go, "Wow, really?"  But then it's back to business and beliefs as usual.  As if they didn't learn anything.

"People who are taught surprising statistical facts about human behaviour may be impressed to the point of telling their friends about what they have heard, but that does not mean that their understanding of the world has really changed."

So how does anyone actually learn the rules behind the statistic and adapt their behaviour?

 "But even compelling causal statistics will not change long held beliefs or beliefs rooted in personal experience.  On the other hand, surprising individual cases have a powerful impact and are more effective tool for teaching psychology because the incongruity must be resolved and embedded in a causal story."  Also, "You're more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behaviour than by hearing surprising facts about people in general."

You need to tell a compelling story of an individual person who's an example of the statistical data you're trying to highlight.  Nonprofits have been doing this well for years.  Then at the end of the story make your generalization to others by showing the numbers.

Why does this work?  Because now I care.  Because now it's personal.  Because now I'm invested in the story you just told. (Pro tip: you can make it even more personal and compelling if you find a way to bring the reader into the story).  Now the numbers matter. They mean something to me.  And I can place them within the context of an emotional framework that connects me to the statistics and compels me to remember and shift the way I think about things.

A note about storytelling:  Stories don't have to be long.  They don't have to be drawn out sagas with plot twists and a traditional beginning, middle and end.  You're not writing The Game of Thrones.

You can tell a compelling story with a single sentence.  You can bond with your audience through a carefully crafted paragraph.  

And if you make the story about your reader - they'll remember forever.