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Storytelling using data makes information easy to digest

In a Q&A, Nate Nichols and Anna Schena Walsh of AI-based analytics vendor Narrative Science talk about how data storytelling can make analytics accessible to business users.

Storytelling using data is helping make analytics digestible across entire organizations.

While the amount of available data has exploded in recent years, the ability to understand the meaning of the data hasn't kept pace. There aren't enough trained data scientists to meet demand, often leaving data interpretation in the hands of both line-of-business employees and high-level executives mostly guessing at the underlying meaning behind data points.

Storytelling using data, however, changes that.

A group of business intelligence software vendors are now specializing in data storytelling, producing platforms that go one step further than traditional BI platforms and attempt to give the data context by putting it in the form of a narrative.

One such vendor is Narrative Science, based in Chicago and founded in 2010. On Jan. 6, Narrative Science released a book entitled Let Your People Be People that delves into the importance of storytelling for businesses, with a particular focus on storytelling using data.

Recently, authors Nate Nichols, vice president of product architecture at Narrative Science, and Anna Schena Walsh, director of growth marketing, answered a series of questions about storytelling using data.

Here in Part II of a two-part Q&A they talk about why storytelling using data is a more effective way to interpret data than traditional BI, and how data storytelling can change the culture of an organization. In Part I, they discussed what data storytelling is and how data can be turned into a narrative that has meaning for an organization.

What does emphasis an on storytelling in the workplace look like, beyond a means of explaining the reasoning behind data points?

Nate NicholsNate Nichols

Nate Nichols: As an example of that, I've been more intentional since the New Year about applying storytelling to meetings I've led, and it's been really helpful. It's not like people are gathering around my knee as I launch into a 30-minute story, but just remembering to kick off a meeting with a 3-minute recap of why we're here, where we're coming from, what we worked on last week and what the things are that we need going forward. It's really just putting more time into reminding people of why, the cause and effect, just helping people settle into the right mindset. Storytelling is an empirically effective way of doing it.

We didn't start this company to be storytellers -- we really wanted everyone to understand and be able to act on data. It turned out that the best way to do that was through storytelling. The world is waking up to this. It's something we used to do -- our ancestors sat around the campfire swapping stories about the hunt, or where the best potatoes are to forage for. That's a thing we used to do, it's a thing that kids do all the time -- they're bringing other kids into their world -- and what's happening is that a lot of that has been beaten out of us as adults. Because of the way the workforce is going, the way automation is going, we're heading back to the importance of those soft skills, those storytelling skills.

How is storytelling using data more effective at presenting data than typical dashboards and reports?

Anna Schena WalshAnna Schena Walsh

Anna Schena Walsh: The brain is hard-wired for stories. It's hard-wired to take in information in that storytelling arc, which is what is [attracting our attention] -- what is something we thought we knew, what is something new that surprised us, and what can we do about it? If you can put that in a way that is interesting to people in a way they can understand, that is a way people will remember. That is what really motivates people, and that's what actually causes people to take action. I think visuals are important parts of some stories, whether it be a chart or a picture, it can help drive stories home, but no matter what you're doing to give people information, the end is usually the story. It's verbal, it's literate, it's explaining something in some way. In reality, we do this a lot, but we need to be a lot more systematic about focusing on the story part.

What happens when you present an explanation with data?

Nichols: If someone sends you a bar chart and asks you to use it to make decisions and there's no story with it at all, what your brain does is it makes up a story around it. Historically, what we've said is that computers are good at doing charts -- we never did charts and graphs and spreadsheets because we thought they were helpful for people, we did them because that was what computers could do. We've forgotten that. So when we do these charts, people look at them and make up their own stories, and they may be more or less accurate depending on their intuition about the business. What we're doing now is we want everyone to be really on the same story, hearing the same story, so by not having a hundred different people come up with a hundred different internal stories in their head, what we're doing at Narrative Science is to try and make the story external so everyone is telling the same story.

So is it accurate to say that accuracy is a part of storytelling using data?

Schena Walsh: When I think of charts and graphs, interpreting those is a skill -- it is a learned skill that comes to some people more naturally than others. In the past few decades there's been this idea that everybody needs to be able interpret [data]. With storytelling, specifically data storytelling, it takes away the pressure of people interpreting the data for themselves. This allows people, where their skills may not be in that area … they don't have to sit down and interpret dashboards. That's not the best use of their talent, and data storytelling brings that information to them so they're able to concentrate on what makes them great.

What's the potential end result for organizations that employ data storytelling -- what does it enable them to do that other organizations can't?

With data storytelling there is a massive opportunity to have everybody in your company understand what's happening and be able to make informed decisions much, much faster.
Anna Schena WalshDirector of growth marketing, Narrative Science

Schena Walsh: With data storytelling there is a massive opportunity to have everybody in your company understand what's happening and be able to make informed decisions much, much faster. It's not that information isn't available -- it certainly is -- but it takes a certain set of skills to be able to find the meaning. So we look at it as empowering everybody because you're giving them the information they need very quickly, and also giving them the ability to lean into what makes them great. The way we think about it is that if you can choose to have someone give a two-minute explanation of what's going on in the business to everyone in the company everyday as they go into work, would you do it? And the answer is yes, and with data storytelling that's what you can do.

I think what we'll see as companies keep trying to move toward everyone needing to interpret data, I actually think there's a lot of potential for burnout there in people who aren't naturally inclined to do it. I also think there's a speed element -- it's not as fast to have everybody learn this skill and have to do it every day themselves than to have the information serviced to them in a way they can understand.

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

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