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The Greatest Story Ever Told ... with Data

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

The greatest story ever told is very simple one: I used to believe something, but now I see things differently. OK let me back up.

Here's a scenario ... you're listening to a presentation that features lots of data, and although the presenter has clearly put a lot of prep work into these slides, the point they are trying to make eludes you. It's a shame, really. All those colors and fonts, all those hours of pivoting and visualizing. Now imagine you're the presenter, showing your carefully crafted visualizations and realizing that you're losing your audience. How did it come to this?

It turns out we developed a technology for transmitting meaning a long, long time ago when our ancestors were sitting around campfires: stories. Stories are technology. Data is inert without meaning, and presentations that tell a story have much higher likelihood of transmitting meaning to the audience. Our brains evolved to draw meaning from campfire narratives. In the past few years, data storytelling has been the subject of Ted talks, podcasts, and it's even made it onto the Gartner Hype Cycle as a trend in Business Intelligence.

Stories have structure and shape. The Story Circle, used frequently by screenwriters and novelists, is a structure loosely based on Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. In the story circle, a hero begins in a comfortable place, then is drawn into a world of trials that teach her/him a new way of being in the world. In the end, the hero pays a price for this new way of being, but returns to the place where the journey began with an understanding that needs to be shared.

Now if you think about it, every great story fits this circle more or less: the Matrix, the Odyssey, Winnie the Pooh. But you might be skeptical that this structure applies to data and presentations. But remember the greatest story ever told? "I used to believe something but now I see things differently." This is essentially a narrative about overcoming confirmation bias - this human tendency to reinforce what we already know with selective filters. All of my data-based presentations have some variant on this theme of overcoming the bias of history. Typically they go something like this:

  • I thought I understood my system

  • I started looking at data, and something wasn't adding up

  • I took a deeper dive into the data

  • Something occurred to me that I hadn't thought of before

  • I had to re-evaluate my previous experience with this new understanding

  • I'm here to tell you what it means

It's not just about data, of course. All learning is about changing your mind based on new information, and coming to a new way of seeing the world. Stories are just ways of passing the lesson on to others.

So when you sit down to create your next presentation, be a hero. Look closely. Change your mind. Then tell your story.

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