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Data-driven storytelling makes data accessible

In a Q&A, Nate Nichols and Anna Schena Walsh of data storytelling vendor Narrative Science discuss their book on storytelling and how narratives can make analytics more accessible.

As organizations wrestle with an abundance of data and a dearth of experts in data interpretation, data-driven storytelling helps those organizations make sense of their information and drive their business forward.

Most business intelligence platforms help organizations transform their information into digestible data visualizations. Many, however, don't give the data context -- attempt to explain why sales dropped in a given month, or rose in another, for example.

Some BI vendors -- Tableau and Yellowfin, for example -- have added data-driven storytelling capabilities.

Narrative Science, a vendor based in Chicago and founded in 2010, meanwhile, is among a group of vendors whose sole focus is data storytelling, offering a suite of tools that give information context. Narrative Science recently introduced Lexio, a tool that turns data into digestible stories and is particularly suited for mobile devices.

 Nate Nichols, vice president of product architecture at Narrative Science, and Anna Schena Walsh, director of growth marketing at the company, co-authored a book on storytelling entitled Let Your People Be People. In the book, published Jan. 6, the authors look at 36 ways storytelling -- with a particular emphasis on data-driven storytelling -- can help change organizations, improving operations as well as helping employees not trained in data science use data to their advantage.

Nichols and Schena Walsh recently answered questions about data-driven storytelling. Here, in Part I of a two-part Q&A, they discuss the importance of data-driven storytelling. In Part II, they delve into how data-driven storytelling can improve an organization's operations.

In a business sense, what is storytelling?

Anna Schena WalshAnna Schena Walsh

Anna Schena Walsh: When we think of storytelling at Narrative Science, we spend a lot of time here thinking about what makes a good story because our software is data storytelling, so we're going from to data to story. What we realized is that the arc of a good story, when it comes to software, also applies to people. No matter where you sit in a business you are a storyteller, whether you are a salesperson, a marketer, an engineer, and at some point in your career you need to be able to tell a good story. Whether it's to advocate for yourself, to sell a product or other various different ways, that's an essential skill for everyone to do precisely and to do it well.

Honing in more narrowly on business intelligence and analytics, how do you define data-driven storytelling?

Nate NicholsNate Nichols

Nate Nichols: It's what Anna said about storytelling and applying it to data. The real shift here is that there's been this idea that getting to the right number, or doing some analysis and looking at a number or a chart, was sufficient, and that was where the process stopped. You got a number and then it's an executive's job to figure out what to go do with that, or someone else's job to figure out what to go and do with those numbers. I think what our customers are looking at and what the world is waking up to is that the right answer is just the beginning of the problem. You have the right answer, but then the real work is the communication, and that's the piece -- the storytelling part -- that can actually change the world and bring people along with you.

No movement was ever led by just stating an answer and then everyone realizing that was right and joining up of their own accord. It's really telling the story, giving it the cause and effect, the context, the why.
Nate NicholsVice president of product architecture, Narrative Science

No movement was ever led by just stating an answer and then everyone realizing that was right and joining up of their own accord. It's really telling the story, giving it the cause and effect, the context, the why. With all of the data and analysis that's out there, you need to still actually do the work of mobilizing it.

How does data-driven storytelling manifest itself -- how do you take the information and turn it into a story?

Nichols: One of the key components is using language, so when our system is writing stories it starts with a question from the user. They want to know how their sales pipeline is, how [operations] were last quarter. There are a lot of systems that can answer that -- our system can answer that and tell you how many deals were made, but then it goes into a storytelling mode where it gives a reader the context, why this is happening or what else is happening around this -- that context becomes really important. It's cause and effect, and knowing why things are happening becomes super important.

It starts with an answer, and then brings in all those storytelling elements to express things in a way that makes sense to a person. A computer is good at saying, 'Sales increased 22 percent week over week,' but a human would say, 'Sales are doing great,' or, 'Sales jumped a lot, sales shot up.' It may be less numerically precise, but it's a lot more intuitive and works with our brains better. Our system is adding on that layer, bringing in the context, bringing in the characters, and then doing a lot of work to put that in a single story that someone can sit down and read and has a beginning and an end.

Your book looks at different ways storytelling can be used by businesses -- what are some of them?

Schena Walsh: The book looks at 36 different ways you can use storytelling. One is how to tell a better story, and then how to create a storytelling environment, and at then at the end how to use data storytelling to enable you to realize your talent. Here at Narrative Science we have software that surfaces the story and brings the data we need to us, which allows the employees here not to be spending time looking through analytics, and then also gives them the data points they need to tell their own stories as well. So we actually spend a lot of time here training our people to tell their stories. Nate actually leads a storytelling workshop here at Narrative Science, and a lot of the elements of what we teach our employees and our clients is … in the book.

Why do businesses need to improve their data-driven storytelling abilities -- what does it enable them to do that they might not otherwise be able to?

Schena Walsh: One big trend I've seen is companies leaning into what was previously referred to as soft skills. As you see a lot more automation of tasks happening, these skills have become more and more important. For us, we truly believe that storytelling unlocks incredible potential for companies. We know we need to spend a lot of time with data, we need that information, and data storytelling allows us to be able to able to tell stories about ourselves, about our companies, about our jobs really well and really precisely.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

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