best practices data stories

Wear Pants, Tell Stories

We’ve talked about naming relationships in stories, creating obstacles, telling our own stories, and how to walk your talk. Now, in the fifth entry of our series about storytelling, let’s talk about combining story with data for maximum effect.

The “two” in your one-two punch
Many of us think data are king. Numbers seem like an objective, universal language. We may even believe that opening with data makes us instantly credible and our requests impossible to deny.

What this assumption really does is make us forget that humans make decisions based on emotion. In fact, neuroscience shows that without emotion, we can’t decide. Relying solely on logic and objective data to build your case can take your audience down a cerebral path, limiting your access to their hearts. Data are more effective as the “two” in your one-two (story-data) punch.

Open with emotion, then multiply
Setting up your data with a story will lead to a more emotional impact on your audience. First introduce your topic with a story and then punctuate it with a single compelling data point. For example, tell a story about Johnny, the homeless teen, and finish your story by saying, “Can you believe there are 400 Johnny’s looking for shelter every single night downtown?” This simple combination helps the audience arrive at the breadth of the problem on their own. The emotions everyone just felt from the story are now—stick with me—400 times stronger (give or take).

Get people hungry for data before they see it
If you start with a story and get your audience interested in the characters and experiences you are talking about, then curiosity about the full landscape (i.e., the numbers) will come naturally. You won’t have to sell them on the data (or find yourself on the defensive) because they will be the ones asking you how frequent, deep, expensive, or dangerous something is.

When in doubt, bet on story
Now, where does the pants thing come in? Right here. Think of your story as a pair of pants. Pants come in many shapes, sizes, and patterns. Whatever you wear, wear them proudly. Think of your data as the belt. It’s better to walk into a room with one pair of pants on and no belt than, heaven forbid, no pants and three belts. You may think it makes you look extra put together but it won’t get you invited to happy hour after the big meeting.

Still don’t believe me? Check out this lovely reflection from a data-driven lawyer turned story convert.

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