How Storytelling Takes Your Data to the Next Level

As you know by now, we at the Sterling Woods Group are firm believers in the power of data. But for those who aren’t data scientists who spend their days in the weeds with data, the valuable information to be mined from the data itself can look like a jumble of numbers.

That’s why it’s not enough to let those numbers speak for themselves. You need to write a story to go along with it. When you can craft a narrative around the numbers, you help your entire team understand why your data matters and what they should do about it.

With the right kind of storytelling around your data, you are more likely to get buy-in from both leadership and those who will execute on your data-based strategy every day.

Creating organization-wide buy-in is critically important if you want to put your data most fully to use. Let’s take a closer look at what data storytelling is. Why is it its own special skill, and how do you undertake data storytelling within your business?

What Is Data Storytelling?

You’re likely familiar with the concept of data and storytelling separately. But what does data storytelling look like?

It’s more than just solid modeling of the data or a nice pie chart or bar graph here and there. It’s the art of bringing those numbers to life with a narrative around them.

Remember, those numbers didn’t just appear on your spreadsheet. They came from somewhere. They represent data points about your customers and their actions and behaviors. 

Once you have the raw numbers and begin to analyze them, you’ll see patterns emerge. Those patterns will tell you a story; it’s your job to communicate that in a way that others will understand, too.

Data storytelling is about finding ways to share the significance of those patterns with the people that need to know why they matter—namely, your team and stakeholders. In an article for Gartner, Christy Pettey defines storytelling succinctly as “Storytelling = visualization + narrative + context.”

Data storytelling should start with context. Why did you choose to focus on these specific data points? And what did you expect them to tell you about your business? How did you collect the numbers? 

That’s just the beginning of your story. Crafting a narrative around those numbers means you need to create a middle and an end, too. This is where you delve into the patterns that you saw emerge, what you infer from them, and what that means for your business going forward.

The final step is incorporating visualization. Visualization doesn’t necessarily mean visuals (although you can certainly include visual aids in your storytelling). Instead, visualization is about painting a picture—with words or images—about what your data means and where it’s going to lead you.

Great orators all have the gift of creating a shared vision through the power of their words. The story you tell using your data should similarly unite your team around a common goal: using your data to serve your customers better and grow your business.

Why Does It Matter?

Storytelling is one of the oldest human traditions for a reason. It’s how we find shared meaning and sense of purpose in the world. And when you create a compelling story around your data, it’s how you inspire your team to rally around that data and take necessary action.

Those who are in the field of data science might glance through the raw numbers, quickly and easily interpret the figures there, and feel inspired. But for others who don’t have a background in this specialized area, there is less impetus to act on those data points without some messaging around the digits.

Oftentimes, turning to our data helps us find radical new ways to run our business. These deviations from the status quo might feel risky, scary, or uncomfortable for those who are used to the current way of operating.

You might be able to see from the numbers that, in fact, change is necessary; the real risk is in continuing on down the current road. But if you can’t effectively communicate the need for change, people throughout your organization will either feel uninspired to join in your new mission, or worse, will sabotage these new efforts.

Data storytelling is not about forcing everyone on your team to get into the weeds of the data itself. Instead, it’s a way to help the message you receive from the data permeate your entire organization. From there, you can build a culture that’s excited by the prospect of using data to drive smart, strategic change.

Where to Start

When it comes to data storytelling, you might be wondering where to begin. Can I accomplish this with my present team? Do I need to create a new role?

As with our advice on getting your analytics program up and running, it pays to start slowly and methodically with data storytelling. You begin your data analytics program by identifying your points of risk and leverage and setting KPIs. From there, you measure and track those results with data.

To begin the process of crafting stories around your data, return to these earliest steps of the analytics process. What were those points of risk or leverage, and did the data prove or disprove your hypothesis? Answering that simple question can give you a jumping-off point for outlining your data story.

However, it’s important that you don’t allow preconceived notions to dictate the story you tell. MIT Sloan professor Miro Kazakoff contends that objectivity in storytelling is critical. Don’t try to bend the data points to fit the narrative you wish were true.

Instead, take out the red pen and aggressively edit out any data points that muddle the real story. That means removing both biases and superfluous information.

As for whether or not you need to hire new folks to push your data storytelling initiative forward, that depends on your existing team’s skillset and your budget. Even if a new hire isn’t in the cards right now, you can upskill your existing team to ensure that true data literacy is a core competency for your entire staff. Get the data nerds and blue-sky thinkers alike to develop an appreciation for and understanding of the powerful story that data can tell.

About the Sterling Woods Group, LLC

The Sterling Woods Group’s mission is to help clients make sense of their data to predictably grow sales. We apply data science to help you optimize your sales funnel, improve your marketing ROI, launch new products successfully, and enter new markets profitably.

We use a hypothesis-driven, data-supported methodology to discover insights that no one else is paying attention to. Then, we help you assemble the right sales strategies, marketing plans, technologies, and resources to seize this opportunity.

About the Author

Rob Ristagno, founder and CEO of the Sterling Woods Group, previously served as a senior executive at several digital media and e-commerce businesses, including as COO of America’s Test Kitchen. Starting his career at McKinsey, his focus has always been on embracing digital technology and data science to spur strategic growth.

Rob is the author of A Member is Worth a Thousand Visitors and is a regular keynote speaker at conferences around the world. He has been featured on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and Digiday.

He holds degrees from the Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College and has taught at both Harvard and Boston College.

Rob lives outside Boston, MA with his wife, Kate; daughter, Leni; and black lab, Royce.

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