Analytical Storytelling: Where Being Digital and Innately Human Converge
Merging age-old principles of storytelling and the new field of data journalism, organizations can ensure that decision-making is data-based and meaningful by tapping into the human attributes of stakeholders.
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As old as humankind itself, storytelling enables people to convey information and motivate listeners — and help listeners retain more and understand complex concepts and relationships. This makes storytelling a potent, even essential, business tool where the vast profusion of raw data must somehow be transformed into actionable insights. In fact, effective storytelling can enable companies to shift from decision-making that is instinct-driven to insight-informed.
As such, analytical storytelling is the last step in bridging the gap between insights and action, and perpetuates a pervasive data-driven decision-making culture. Simply stated, in a business context, storytelling is the art and science of brining data to life to tell a well-constructed narrative — one that ultimately connects with the hopes, fears and motivations of each stakeholder to encourage and guide a change in behavior.
The State of Decision-Making & the Case for Storytelling
Data is now as ubiquitous as air itself in the world of business, and easier and cheaper than ever to gather and analyze. Business insights derived from data are becoming an essential part of corporate survival and success in the digital world.
Despite the torrents of data available to most businesses, however, research suggests that executives do not leverage it when making key decisions. Results indicate that, at best, data is being used when making decisions only four out of every 10 times. Such numbers accord with our experience, where the impact of fact-based decision-making isn’t very encouraging. In fact, despite the infusion of new data collection, management, and analytical technologies and techniques, a vast disconnect remains between decades of IT investment and business impact.
One misguided yet common tendency is to rely on instincts or “gut-based” decision-making. While it creates a sense of romanticism and self-importance in the decision-maker, this behavior is at odds with new investments in enterprise information collection, management and analysis.
Storytelling & Data Journalism To The Rescue
There is a gap between the way humans were designed to understand information and how people are expected to consume data today, and the neuroscience of storytelling suggests that humans physically respond better to stories than any other form of information consumption. Listeners identify better with the speaker, translate the story into relatable ideas, and process and recall information with greater accuracy.
In our discussions of storytelling with numerous industry experts, the common thread that emerged was that the empathy evoked by storytelling is unmatched.
But there is a precursor phase to analytical storytelling, known generally as data journalism. This is the stage where facts and situations are documented and clarified. Only then can organizations apply analytical storytelling to bring the recommended action forward to key stakeholders. While data journalism is a necessary step — which can be likened to investigative reporting that exposes the real story and uncovers a single version of truth — it does not require the author to inspire action, but merely to present the facts. Therefore, data journalism alone is insufficient when attempting to shift from instincts to insights in decision-making.
Analytical storytelling is the process of bringing clarity to a call to action, inspiring that action with persistent follow-through, and infusing all the people within the organization with a determination to learn from the actions, bad and good. The need for a call to action is to help ensure that business leaders or those they supervise do not merely “fight the last war” but rather confront the new situation before them.
As for the “how” to implement analytical storytelling initiative, intensive stakeholder analysis is required. Understanding the problems, priorities, perceptions and personalities (the four P’s) of each stakeholder or interest group becomes critical in determining the most effective way to communicate with them. All these characteristics need to be mapped, and the same analytical story could be presented in very different ways depending on variations in the four P’s.
For example, when we worked with a large client on organizational change, the engagement began with a recognition that it needed to embrace a data-driven decision-making culture. Further, the client suffered from a disconnect between data analysis — performed by a technical group — and business leaders’ activities. What was needed was a path to free the analytics team from everyday data management and induce the company’s business personnel to take responsibility for the more mundane data-handling tasks.
Analytical storytelling was the crucial ingredient in laying out a comprehensive story of the problem, solution, benefits and resulting transformation. After conducting an intensive stakeholder analysis, we constructed a strategic and segmented communication plan, based on the four p’s. As a result, each major stakeholder was presented with a personalized “analytical story” that spoke to their anxieties and aspirations. In doing so, we looked at the following dimensions:
What parts of the story are most meaningful to this stakeholder, and in what measure? It might be cost savings, revenue creation, error reduction, government compliance, etc.
What method of engagement is most meaningful for this stakeholder? E-mail, in-person meetings, team presentations with peers, lunch, etc.
What method of progress tracking is most meaningful to this stakeholder and his or her team?
What communities of interest can be encouraged to provide mutual self-service as a community exercise, breaking from the traditional hub-and-spoke support system and encouraging a more holistic approach (such as “Amazon style,” with reviews and replies) to engagement and support?
What definition of success will each stakeholder have, and how can all be reminded of the continuous march to progress based on this definition?
Striving to be fact-based will likely improve the odds of business success, but such an aspiration confronts human biases and situations. The tools of data journalism and analytical storytelling, when mapped to audience attributes, can help anyone or any company clarify their thinking, improve their decision quality and inspire action — including the motivation to bring such action to completion and repeat the learning cycle. Individuals and companies who embrace the guidance of facts while also satisfying the human need for storytelling will have a competitive advantage.