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Data Storytelling for the Win!

Using storytelling techniques in presentations and communications is the most effective way to strengthen their impact.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Jackie Cuyvers will be speaking at IIeX Europe (18-19 February, 2019 in Amsterdam). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX Europe. Click here to learn more.


As market researchers and insights professionals, it’s our job not just to do the analysis, but deliver actionable insights that help our partners and clients fundamentally change the way they do business. But how do we go from delivering our reports to delivering insights that drive impact?

Sometimes we do ourselves and our clients a disservice in delivering our findings in a way that’s not relatable or actionable to them. While it may make sense to us, we have to ensure we’re speaking their language and have positioned our delivery to their frame of reference.

Often the problem is too much data. Why? Maybe it’s because we love the research and want to nerd out and have other people enjoy it as much as we do.  Or maybe you want to demonstrate value, how hard you’ve worked, how knowledgeable and helpful you can be, over-delivering a slew of data and findings instead of a clear concise answer and recommendations to solve the business challenge.

Have you ever delivered some analysis you thought was amazing, but the client didn’t get it or couldn’t seem to care less? You may ask yourself, where did we go wrong and how could we do better? “Don’t the facts speak for themselves?” you might ask – and the answer is clearly, no, they do not.

Every day we are all inundated with information, facts, and figures, little of which truly makes an impact or sticks with us. Think back over the last few days, weeks or month – what are the key insights that stick out? So, what makes the difference? It’s the story around it that puts it in context, makes it relatable and gives it stickiness. That’s why we at Convosphere, are so focused on data storytelling.

“The challenge when using data to support evidence-based decision-making is that, while we collect lots of data and we have lots of answers, we are often guilty of not answering the question [that matters most to the audience].” – Kimberly Silk, Data Librarian at the University of Toronto.

So how do we tell the right story to our intended audience? The first step is to know your audience. According to a Harvard Business Review article, featured in the book; Let the Story Do the Work; The Art of Storytelling for Business Success, by Esther K. Choy, there are 5 types of audience:

  • Intelligent Outsiders
  • High-level Cross-functional Colleagues
  • The Boss (your boss)
  • The Head Cheese(s) (your boss’ bosses)
  • Fellow Experts

Understanding which audience, you’re addressing and tailoring your presentation and story accordingly is the first and most critical step to successful data storytelling.  Once you’ve done that, you can communicate your data in a way that keeps your audience’s needs of paramount importance and speaks directly to them. According to Choy, “Story’s power comes in part from its engagement of emotion.”

It sounds so simple, incorporate a story and people will remember your message, but without thought and planning, crafting one that resonates and delivers impact can seem daunting.

In order to craft a story narrative around our data in her book, Choy lists 5 steps we need to follow:

  1. Practice Empathy: Put yourself in the audience’s shoes.
  2. Prove and Persuade: Know when to do which.
  3. Words over Numbers: Emphasize words to ensure retention of key numbers.
  4. Create Meaning: Identify and emphasize the “so what?”
  5. Give Them What They Want, Tell Them What They Need: Focus on what your audience needs to hear.

Keeping in mind these 5 steps when preparing our insights to share with our intended audience, we should then craft our story by separating the complex materials into categories that won’t overwhelm our audience.  We should consider drawing on analogies and metaphors to tie the insights to a personally relatable concept or experience.  Lastly, consider adopting the storytelling structure of “AIA” where you “acknowledge your audience’s experience at the outset; in the middle, you inspire them to improve their current situation with what you have to offer; and motivate them to aspire for a different future at the end.” With a focus on these steps, everyone can craft a compelling story that delivers the data insights that matter most to their audience.

Using storytelling techniques in our presentations and communications is the most effective way to strengthen their impact. This book serves as a guidebook to deepen your understanding of the key requirements and how to move from sharing facts to telling a story, regardless of your experience or area of expertise.

A person who has mastered the art of data storytelling, is Elaine Rodrigo, Danone’s Chief Strategy and Insight Officer.  She was the most engaging speaker at the recent Web Summit 2018 in Lisbon and will be a speaker at IIeX Europe, in Amsterdam in February. Having already witnessed how she can engage and enthrall an audience, sharing case studies showing how Danone has used social intelligence to make data-driven decisions, she’s an exemplary speaker on how to effectively use data storytelling. Her session at IIeX, How We Used a Robot to Solve a Very Human Problem, shouldn’t be missed.

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Jackie Cuyvers

Jackie Cuyvers

CEO, Convosphere