Imagine you’re reading your favourite book, or watching your favourite film. That story you’re so in love with has been crafted with a purpose in mind — whether that’s to entertain, to educate, to rage against the state of the world, or to work through a problem — and that purpose, the idea in the creator’s mind, has been communicated to you so thoroughly and subtly that you are hooked as you watch the events unfold. We’ve all experienced that feeling of being so enthralled in a story, and that feeling is powerful; it can make you feel and think differently depending on what the creator has wanted to communicate with you. That is the art of storytelling.
Storytelling is indeed an art spanning the centuries — with great writers and artists alike hunting still now for the mysteries that will make their work shine above the rest. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love gave a TED Talk where she tells an anecdote of the Romans, who attributed the creative energies of an individual to their own personal muse.
Our brains are hardwired to pay attention and engage with stories — they ignite our imagination, but they also activate the neurochemicals such as cortisol and dopamine. We need to present data in the same stimulating way.
Over the years we’ve analysed countless stories and worked out which techniques work best to capture and engage the audience, and which techniques are an abysmal bust. It turns out that, as much as storytelling is a mystic art, there is a lot of science to support those techniques that work — as human beings, our brain is hardwired to pay attention to stories: releasing cortisol to help commit them as much to memory as possible, using dopamine to support that process through the engagement of emotional responses, and oxytocin to deepen the connection between audience and story.
But those scientific responses don’t just happen with any old story, only those that engage our full attention and imagination. This is what data scientists have been trying to recreate for a number of years now to communicate actionable insights in a way that engages the minds of key decision-makers, and allow those memorable insights to be brought to mind time and again just like the memorable moments of a story. Take a look at our infographic below to find out the science behind storytelling:
Telling the Story of Data
The creation of a story isn’t as easy as it seems. There are lots of elements to consider as outlined above, such as structure (whether that’s the overall narrative arc or the many subplots to keep momentum going), the key characters that the writer needs to focus on in order to drive the plot forward, and the action sequences that engage the imagination through dynamic drama.
Translating these concepts into presenting data isn’t easy, but with a little effort and practice, it will become easier to see the parallels between key insights and the necessary components of a story. Dramatic effect for example, isn’t an aspect keenly associated with the world of business and profit, but a little dramatic effect can go a long way when presenting insights.
Telling the story of data, rather than just presenting cold hard facts, will always be worthwhile. But it pays to brush up on key storytelling techniques and understand the power that stories hold when told well.
Dramatic doesn’t always mean a damsel in distress — drama is emotion and conflict, but something simple and relatable so that the majority of your audience can build a connection and feel the predominant emotion too. Stories don’t always have the answers, but neither does life. A story does, however, have all the details necessary for your audience to engage with it, and put together those details in a way that enables them to form their own interpretations and answers.
Telling the story of data, rather than just presenting cold hard facts, will always be a worthwhile endeavour. But it pays to brush up on key storytelling techniques and understand the power that stories hold when told well.
The original version of this article appeared on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.